What You Need to Know About Grad School Recommendation Letters

Recommendation letters are a critical part of the graduate school application. If you are planning on applying to grad school, think about who you will ask for letters of recommendation well before you begin preparing your graduate school application. Make contact with professors during the first two years of college and develop relationships, as you will rely on them to write recommendation letters that will land you a spot in the graduate program of your choice.

Every graduate program requires applicants to submit recommendation letters. Don’t underestimate the importance of these letters. While your transcript, standardized test scores, and admissions essay are vital components of your graduate school application, an excellent recommendation letter can make up for weaknesses in any of these areas.


A well-written recommendation letter provides admissions committees with information that isn't found elsewhere in the application. It is a detailed discussion, from a faculty member, of the personal qualities, accomplishments, and experiences that make you unique and perfect for the programs to which you've applied.

A helpful letter of recommendation provides insights that cannot be gleaned by simply reviewing an applicant’s transcript or standardized test scores. Moreover, a recommendation can validate a candidate’s admissions essay.

Whom to Ask

Most graduate programs require at least two—and more commonly three—recommendation letters. Most students find choosing professionals to write recommendations difficult. Consider faculty members, administrators, internship/cooperative education supervisors, and employers. The people you ask to write your recommendation letters should:

  • Know you well
  • Know you long enough to write with authority
  • Know your work
  • Describe your work positively
  • Have a high opinion of you
  • Know where you are applying
  • Know your educational and career goals
  • Be able to favorably compare you with your peers
  • Be well-known
  • Be able to write a good letter

No one person will satisfy all of these criteria. Aim for a set of recommendation letters that cover the range of your skills. Ideally, letters should cover your academic and scholastic skills, research abilities and experiences, and applied experiences (such as cooperative education, internships, and related work experience).

For example, a student who is applying to a Master of Social Work program or a program in clinical psychology might include recommendations from faculty who can attest to her research skills as well as recommendation letters from faculty or supervisors who can speak to her clinical skills and potential.

How to Ask

There are good and bad ways of approaching faculty to ask for a letter of recommendation. Time your request well: Don’t corner professors in the hallway or immediately before or after class. Request an appointment, explaining that you’d like to discuss your plans for graduate school.

Save the official request and explanation for that meeting. Ask the professor if he knows you well enough to write a meaningful and helpful recommendation letter. Pay attention to his demeanor. If you sense reluctance, thank him and ask someone else. Remember that it is best to ask early in the semester. As the end of the semester approaches, faculty may hesitate because of time restraints.

Also be aware of common mistakes students make when requesting recommendation letters, such as asking too close to the admissions deadline. Make the request at least a month ahead of time, even if you don’t have your application materials composed or your final list of programs selected.

Provide Information 

The best thing that you can do to ensure that your recommendation letters cover all areas is to provide your recommenders with all the necessary information. Don't assume that they will remember everything about you.

For example, a professor might remember that a student is exceptional and an excellent participant in class but may not recall all of the details when she sits down to write—how many classes the student took with her and extracurricular interests, such as being active in the psychology honors society. Provide a file with all of your background information:

  • Transcript
  • Resume or curriculum vitae
  • Admissions essays
  • Courses you’ve taken with each recommending professor
  • Research experience
  • Internship and other applied experiences
  • Honor societies to which you belong
  • Awards you’ve won
  • Work experience
  • Professional goals
  • Due date for the application
  • Copy of the application recommendation forms (if a paper/hard copy letter is required and if the forms are provided by the institution)
  • List of programs to which you are applying (and have them send email requests for recommendations early, well before the deadline)

Importance of Confidentiality

The recommendation forms supplied by graduate programs require you to decide whether to waive or retain your rights to see your recommendation letters. If you decide to retain your rights, remember that confidential recommendation letters tend to carry more weight with admissions committees.

In addition, many faculty will not write a recommendation letter unless it is confidential. Other faculty may provide you with a copy of each letter, even if it is confidential. If you are unsure of what to decide, discuss it with a college adviser

As the application deadline approaches, check with your recommenders—but don’t nag. Contacting the graduate programs to inquire whether your materials were received is also appropriate. Regardless of the outcome of your application, send a thank you note once you have determined that faculty members have submitted their letters.

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