Quick Guide to Letters of Recommendation

Nearly all applications for graduate or professional school will require letters or recommendation in addition to your other materials. Most programs require 2-3 letters, and may or may not have specific requirements about who is to write the letters (faculty members, previous supervisors, etc.

What is the purpose of a letter of recommendation?

For the most part graduate and professional programs do not base their admission decisions on grades and entrance exam scores alone. Letters of recommendation are included in an admissions packet to provide committee members with a more subjective view of your abilities and attitude towards academic opportunities. If you have the right people saying the right things about you, it can greatly improve your odds of admission. Strong letters of recommendation can enhance your application, even if you feel it is average in other ways.

Who should write a letter of recommendation?

Faculty members are considered the most well-regarded letter writers by most admissions committees. They can speak to your academic performance and also know the rigors of graduate school. Faculty who are in your area of interest, are an alumnus of your target school, or know a faculty member at your target school are preferable. When considering who to ask, keep in mind it is usually best to have a strong letter from someone who knows you well, rather than someone with an impressive title who doesn't really know you. Graduate admissions committees are trying to predict how successful you will be in their academic programs, so academic references are most important.

Former employers or internship supervisors in the profession you are seeking to enter can also be useful. They can speak to your professional performance and motivation.

How should you approach a potential letter writer?

  • Make an appointment with the potential letter writer to ask them for this favor in person if at all possible
  • Discuss with them your reasons for attending graduate or professional school, if you have not already done so
  • Provide them with
    • a copy of your resume or CV
    • a copy of your personal statement
    • a document containing information about you that might be helpful for them to include
    • a self-addressed stamped envelope, or information about online entry process
    • if required, the paper form or appropriate link for an online recommendation
    • a deadline
  • Give them plenty of time to prepare a letter- 6 to 8 weeks is recommended
  • Give them the opportunity to say “no”
    • You do not want someone that is not comfortable writing a letter for you
    • It can be helpful to ask if they can write you a strong letter of recommendation
  • Make sure to send them a thank you note, both after they have submitted their letter on your behalf, and again after accepting an offer of admissions
    • This second letter reiterates your thanks and serves to let your letter writers know where you