Letters of Recommendation

Letters of recommendation are an opportunity to include more personal information in your graduate school application. Most graduate programs expect a student to submit three letters of recommendation with their application. These letters may reflect a combination of academic, employment, and community experiences that relate to your field of interest.

Whom to ask?

Depending upon the requirements of your program, these writers may be faculty, internship supervisors, employers, or others who can confidently discuss your potential for graduate-level work. Doctoral programs often prefer letters from tenured faculty who are familiar with you and your research; Master’s programs often require that one letter come from a professor, while the others may come from those who have supervised you in internship, volunteer, or work experiences related to your proposed graduate study. 

Ask someone who...
  • knows you well
  • has the title “Professor”
  • has known you long enough to write with authority
  • knows your work, especially research potential
  • can describe your work positively
  • has academically evaluated you in an upper-division class
  • knows your educational and career goals
  • can favorably compare you with your peers

Note: letters from family friends, political figures, and the like usually are discouraged and may, in fact, be detrimental.

Keep in mind that no one person will satisfy all of these criteria. Aim for a set of letters that covers the range of your skills. Ideally, letters should cover your academic and scholastic skills, research abilities and experiences, and applied experiences (e.g., cooperative education, internships, related work experience). The ideal letter of recommendation comes from someone who knows you both in and beyond the classroom, and visiting professors during office hours and working with them in a volunteer or research capacity is a great opportunity to build a relationship.

How to Ask?

Remember that asking for a letter of recommendation is a very personal request. As such, you should make every effort to set up a face-to-face appointment with your recommenders. Try to avoid asking for a letter of recommendation by e-mail if at all possible.

An in-person appointment has its advantages. First, you will be able to gauge whether or not your recommender is enthusiastic about writing you a letter. You should always ask whether or not they feel comfortable enough in writing you a strong letter of recommendation. If you sense any hesitation on their part, or if they are in any way ambiguous in their reply, hear them out, thank them, and prepare yourself to find an alternative.

Second, an in-person meeting allows you to articulate more thoroughly why you want to attend graduate school and your future goals, among other things. While you might feel somewhat intimidated in the presence of your recommenders, remember that the in-person appointment is meant to be a conversation.

Finally, a by-product of the in-person appointment is access to information about graduate school programs. Many students forget that their professors may have colleagues at the institutions and programs to which they are applying. They might also know of programs that might interest you but that you haven't encountered yet. If you use the opportunity to discuss your graduate school choices along with your request for a letter, most professors will be very generous in giving you the inside scoop on other departments and programs.

Timing

Recommenders always appreciate when you are considerate of their time. You should always give your recommenders ample time to write a letter for you: four to six weeks if at all possible. Remember that as the quarter progresses professors get increasingly busy and time constraints become more relevant. Ask early in the quarter so that you get the best possible letter.

Be Prepared

To assist your recommender and improve the strength and detail of the letter, give them a packet of information that includes as much of the following information as possible. Offering this packet to your recommender upon asking for a letter can also help them feel more comfortable accepting your request. Items to include:

To assist your recommender and improve the strength and detail of the letter, give them a packet of information that includes as much of the following information as possible. Offering this packet to your recommender upon asking for a letter can also help them feel more comfortable accepting your request. Items to include:

  • Cover Letter
  • Draft or condense version of your statement of purpose
  • Resume or curriculum vita (CV)
  • Copy of a paper
  • Transcript

Remember to recognize the time and effort your recommenders put forth on your behalf by sending a handwritten thank-you note. 

Letters for the Future

If you do not intend to go directly to graduate school, it may be prudent to use an online letter service like Interfolio. This way, you can request letters now and have them on file for the future. Using this service, you yourself can later forward the letters confidentially to any number of programs. However, it is still recommended that you stay in touch with your letter writers, should you need a letter updated in the future.

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