Letters of Recommendation

Letters of recommendation are required for nearly all graduate school applications and are an important component of the application process.

Although the number of letters required may vary, applicants are typically asked for three letters of recommendation. It is generally suggested that applicants submit only the number of letters requested by the admissions committee.

Obtaining letters of recommendation for graduate studies can be a challenge for many students. Determining who to ask, when to ask, and how to ask for letters of recommendation can be stressful. Below are recommendations on how to approach the process of securing strong letters for your application.

Get an Early Start

Letters of recommendation are written on a voluntary basis. It is generally recommended that you ask potential letter writers if they are able to write a strong letter. If the person you ask is hesitant or is unable to write a letter for you, seek out someone else.

Professors (i.e., academic letters) and supervisors (i.e., professional letters) are generally pleased to write on your behalf. However, they are often busy and involved in many activities. Faculty members are especially pressed for time during the months of November and December. It is important to provide your recommenders with ample time to write the letter. With this in mind, you should contact your recommenders at least two months before you need the letter. Note that most letters of recommendation for graduate school are confidential. That is, you should not read or have access to the content of the letter.

If you are planning on taking time off before applying to graduate school, it is advised not to wait until you apply to graduate school to ask for letters. Your professors may be on sabbatical, traveling, or you may not be fresh in their minds anymore. So, one option is to ask your professor for a "general" letter of recommendation before you leave college, informing your recommender that you plan to apply to graduate school in the future. When you are ready to apply to graduate school, contact the professors again, and ask them to update your letters. Another (less used) option is to request a letter of recommendation from your professor and use a fee-based letter management service (e.g., Interfolio.com) to store your letter of recommendation until you are ready to apply.  

How to Ask for a Letter of Recommendation

It is generally advised that individuals requesting letters of recommendation do so in person or virtual meeting (e.g., Zoom, Skype). Requests by email or by phone are only recommended if the potential recommender is out of the area/region or unable to meet in person or via Zoom/Skype. 

Since your best letters will come from those who know you, make an effort to get to know your professors and/or supervisors. Some strategies to do so include being vocal and participating in class; selecting courses with small class sizes; taking more than one class with a professor; conducting research with a professor; and attending office hours regularly.

You can assist your recommenders by providing each of them with some or all of the following materials:

  1. An request summary that includes:
    • Your contact information
    • What you would like emphasized in each letter of recommendation
    • Note – open and close your letter by thanking the recommender and acknowledging that the recommender’s time is valuable.
  2. A list of schools to which you are applying which includes due dates (with the earliest due date at the top). This list should include name of school, program, due dates, and instructions on how to submit the letter (i.e., outline whether the letter should be submitted through an online application database, email, mail, etc.)
  3. Your unofficial transcripts (note any courses you took with the recommender)
  4. A draft of your statement of purpose
  5. A copy of your best work in the course (with instructor comments on it), lab evaluations, projects, etc.
  6. Your resume or curriculum vitae (CV)
  7. Stamped and addressed envelopes to send letters and forms directly to schools of your choice. If letters are submitted online, include instructions regarding how to submit each letter.

In general, graduate programs prefer confidential letters, meaning that you, the applicant, cannot read the letter. In many instances, graduate applications require that applicants waive their right to view their letters of recommendation.

Who to Ask for a Letter of Recommendation

The best letters tend to come from those individuals who know you well and can offer an evaluation of your ability to perform and succeed at the graduate level. It is generally suggested that you ask for letters from "academic" and/or "professional" sources (note: letters from family and friends are discouraged). Thus, it is recommended that you consider asking:

  • An individual who knows you well
  • An individual with the title of "Professor"
  • An individual with an advanced degree who has supervised you in a job or internship aligned with the graduate program you are pursuing (e.g., higher education, law, public policy, etc.).

After Receiving Letters of Recommendation

It is advised that you keep your recommenders updated with relevant information or status updates during the application process. Once you are notified by your school/program regarding your admission decision, you should inform your recommenders to which schools you were accepted and thank the recommender again for their guidance and support.