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Tips for Grad School Letters of Recommendation

September 7, 2021
How to Secure the Best Letters of Recommendation for Grad School

If you’re applying for a master’s program, you know that obtaining letters of recommendation are a critical part of the process. However, unlike your resume or personal statement, you can’t control the outcome of your letters. That makes choosing the right recommenders even more important.

An effective letter gives the admissions team insight into your potential as a graduate student and a professional, so you need to be sure to ask the right people to represent you. You may feel awkward or unsure about how to ask someone to write a letter of recommendation for grad school on your behalf. But this task doesn’t have to be an uncomfortable one.

Keep reading for some actionable advice that will help you get the best possible recommendation letters to bolster your grad school application.

How to identify individuals to write your letters of recommendation

Most programs will require 2-3 letters of recommendation for grad school applications. Read the application carefully, as many programs stipulate whether your letters should come from academic or professional connections.

Once you understand the guidelines, it’s time to sit down and make a list of potential letter writers. What matters most is that the person you’re engaging with has worked with you before in some capacity and can speak to specific traits about you that make you qualified for the program you’re applying to.

When making your list, keep these tips in mind:

  • Choose someone in a relevant field. If you are applying to a Master of Science in Educational Leadership program, it may not make sense to ask your Intro to Music professor from freshman year.
  • Seek a variety of individuals and identify roles for them. Your letter writers will help to represent you, so rather than choosing three people who all know you in the same way, think about who can help represent different aspects of your achievement and potential. Let them know if you want them to highlight a particular accomplishment, project or skill.
  • Select people who know you well. Sometimes students make the mistake of thinking that having a letter written by someone with a reputable name is impressive. But regardless of how renowned a person is, if they don’t know you well enough to write more than a vague statement or two, you’re not doing yourself any favors.

Consider reaching out to professors or mentors with whom you have a close relationship. They will be able to speak about you in detail. The best kinds of people to ask include:

  • Professors who taught you recently and/or taught subjects that are relevant to the program you’re applying for.
  • Mentors or supervisors who can speak to your strengths or about challenges you’ve overcome.
  • A professional colleague or manager who can share about your success and habits in the workplace.

How to ask for a letter of recommendation for grad school

Now that you have ideas of who you can reach out to, you can start planning the best way to ask them for this favor. In pre-pandemic times, the prevailing advice was to make this request in person whenever possible. These days, it’s more likely that you’ll be communicating virtually via email, but that doesn’t mean you should treat “the ask” informally (see below for a helpful template).

Keep the following tips in mind as you begin approaching potential letter writers:

  • Give your recommender plenty of advance notice (4-6 weeks ideally). Faculty members are usually quite busy, and writing a strong, personalized letter takes a significant amount of time. If you ask them a week before the deadline, they may still agree to write it, but the quality of the letter could reflect the lack of time you gave them to prepare.
  • There is always a chance they may say “No.” If the individual says no, do not take it personally. Thank them for their consideration and go back to your list of options. Begging or bargaining with someone who has declined to write for you is never a good idea.
  • Review all recommendation requirements and inform your letter writer accordingly. Every program has slightly different requirements, so be informed as to whether letters should be submitted electronically or by mail. In the event that hard copy letters are required, you should provide your writer with a stamped and addressed envelope. At Creighton University, recommendations are submitted electronically after you identify your recommenders in your application.
  • Provide the individual with as much information as possible. If you want your recommenders to create unique, high-quality letters, help them out by providing ample information to pull from. Sending them the following items could be beneficial:
    • A current transcript
    • An updated resume or CV
    • Your personal statement
    • Any applicable research proposal
    • Relevant extracurricular activities (i.e., research, internships, fraternity/sorority, academic societies, volunteer projects)
    • A brief outline of your career goals
    • A list of all the graduate schools and specific programs you are applying to
    • Detailed instructions for submitting the letter of recommendation
    • A clearly marked deadline for submission
  • Follow up on your requests. It is your responsibility to check with the school or program to make sure that your letters of recommendations have been received.  You may send a personal reminder email one week before your deadline. Remember that your professors do not owe you recommendations. Be sure to let them know what you hear from the programs, even if you don’t get the results that you wanted. And don’t forget to thank them for their time and effort.

For email requests, consider using the following template, personalized to your situation:

Dear [Individual’s Name],

I hope this email finds you well. I’m writing to ask if you’d be willing to write a letter of recommendation on my behalf. I’m currently preparing to apply for the [graduate program] at [university] this fall, and I believe a letter from you would strengthen my application. [Add a personal, unique sentiments about why you chose this person and a few ideas of what they might speak about in their letter.]

My goal is to have my application ready to submit by [date]. If you would let me know that you’re willing and able to write this letter, I will follow up and send supporting materials: [include a list of everything you plan to send to help them write the letter].

Thank you for your consideration,

[Your First and Last Name]

Build a strong graduate school application

The advice outlined above should have you feeling more confident about identifying and approaching individuals to write letters of recommendation for grad school. This is a crucial element of your overall application, so it shouldn’t be taken lightly – but as long as you prepare for it, it shouldn’t be scary.

The fact that you’re doing your research now is a good sign that you have what it takes to thrive. Get firsthand advice from others who’ve been in your shoes in our article, “How to Succeed in Graduate School.”

Want to know more about what else goes into building a top-notch graduate school application? Review the requirements for Creighton University by visiting our How to Apply page.