How to Get Grad School Letters of RecommendationFebruary 14, 2022
When you are applying for graduate school, you will need to submit various components with your application. Besides the requisite entrance exam scores, personal statement or essay, transcript, and resume, you will likely need letters of recommendation for graduate school.
In most cases, you will need two or three people to write a graduate school letter of recommendation for you that will accompany your application. This guide will provide you with tips for asking for a letter of recommendation to help you secure strong endorsements.
Purpose of Letters of Recommendation
Letters of recommendation for graduate school are meant to give the admissions committee a full, well-rounded picture of you, more than what they can glean from your transcript, resume, and test scores.
The letters should give the admissions committee an idea of how you would perform in graduate school and what you could bring to the program. The letter can also provide information about your research skills to determine how you will succeed in school. Letter writers should focus on your achievements and what makes you the ideal candidate for the graduate program.
Who You Should Ask
Determining who to ask for a graduate school letter of recommendation depends on when you are applying and the specific program. Some graduate programs will have specific criteria of who should write the letter, so you should be sure to pay attention to any guidelines.
If You Are in College
If you are in college and planning to continue your studies in a graduate program, you may want to ask professors to write letters of recommendation for you. It should be professors who know you well and preferably for at least six months, even better if you have taken multiple classes with them. If you have professors who fit these criteria in the field of study for your graduate program, those professors would be the best options.
In addition to asking professors from your classes, consider asking other people who may have detailed knowledge of your work and achievements. If you have worked or interned during college, you could ask a boss or mentor, as that person could easily discuss your work ethic. You could also ask an advisor of any school organizations or clubs in which you have been involved.
If You Are Already in the Workforce
Suppose you are applying for graduate school after you have completed college and entered the workforce. In that case, your letters of recommendation for graduate school may come from your current boss, a mentor, or a colleague rather than a college professor. However, if you have stayed in contact with professors in the same field of study, they may still be a good source for you.
Criteria for Letter Writers
No matter what stage of life you are applying to graduate school, you should choose writers who fit basic criteria in order to obtain the best graduate school letters of recommendation. The ideal person should:
- Know you well for a lengthy period of time (ideally six months or more).
- Think highly of you.
- Write well.
- Be able to speak to your academic performance.
- Know your strengths.
- Be able to convey how you would be an asset to the graduate program.
If you are unsure how the person will write about you, avoid asking them. You will be better served to have letters that offer glowing reviews rather than neutral or negative recommendations.
Avoid Asking Family or Friends
Avoid asking friends and relatives to write your letters of recommendation for graduate school. Even if you have worked with them or been active in an organization together, it’s best practice to focus on people who only know you in a professional setting, unless the school specifically requests character references from friends and family members.
Asking for a Letter of Recommendation
Now that you know the purpose of the letter and have determined who you should ask, you need to actually request the letters. This should be done well in advance of the deadline, but at a minimum – one month out from the due date.
If you are asking a college professor, the actual request for a letter should take place in a meeting setting, rather than a quick mention before or after class. By having a private meeting, you will be better able to gauge whether the person is a good fit for the request. If they seem at all reluctant, it may be best to find someone else. If they are enthusiastic about giving you a recommendation, a meeting allows for dialogue about your future plans and your accomplishments. This discussion can help the writer when composing the letter.
Requesting a meeting should be well timed. When asking professors, time your request to avoid busy grading periods and school breaks, as this could make them hesitant to write a letter. Also, keep in mind that most people on your list probably have busy schedules. Be mindful of this and allow for plenty of time to have the meeting, while giving them enough notice and time to write the letters. It’s better to have recommendations early rather than be up against the deadline.
If you do not regularly see the person from which you are requesting a letter, you can send a professional email with the request. In the email to a professor, include details of the classes you took with them, including subjects and dates. State that you would like a letter of recommendation and ask if they would be willing to discuss further in person or by phone.
What You Should Provide the Letter Writer
Once you have secured people to write letters of recommendation for graduate school for you, be sure to provide them with materials to make the task easier, such as:
- The deadline: Your letter writer needs to know the deadline to ensure the letter is received on time.
- Submission details: Recommenders will usually submit letters through an online portal or by following an email link to a system. This will vary by program. Get the recommender’s contact information, including their email address, and let them know how to submit the letter.
- Info about you: Provide your letter writer with your resume, transcript, list of accomplishments, personal statement, and any research you have completed. The more information they have about you, the better they will be able to compose a strong letter of recommendation.
- Information about the graduate program: Your letter writer needs this information to discuss how your skills and strengths will be a good fit for the program.
What to Do If You Don’t Have Someone to Write a Graduate School Letter of Recommendation
If you are applying for grad school and feel you have not made close enough connections with any professors, it may be challenging to know who to ask for a letter of recommendation. Here are some tips to help find a recommender:
- Register for another class in undergrad in the field of study you will be entering for graduate school. Focus on earning a good grade while making a connection with the professor. This may lead to a letter of recommendation at the end of the semester.
- Reach out to any professors with whom you took multiple classes. Explain that you want to attend grad school and how their classes were beneficial for you. Show them any work you completed in their courses that could help them remember you and possibly lead to a recommendation.
- Ask an academic advisor who may know you well and know your academic performance.
- Find out if the graduate program will make exceptions. Some programs specifically request academic letters. If you have been working, ask if they make exceptions for those who have entered the workforce.
Once you ask for a letter of recommendation, be sure to keep tabs that the graduate program has received it. Follow up with the writer if it hasn’t been received two weeks before the deadline and ask if they need any additional information from you. After they have written the letter, don’t forget to send a thank-you note for their assistance.
When you are accepted to a graduate program and determine the cost involved, don’t let the tuition hold you back from a program you love. Student loans are an option to help cover any tuition and cost of attendance. ELFI offers graduate student loans with no fees and competitive, low-interest rates.* You could get prequalified in minutes without affecting your credit.