A letter of recommendation is a formal letter that is often included in support of an academic application, such as for a graduate program, fellowship, or other honor or award. Often, letters of recommendation are written by professors or faculty members, but may sometimes come from others, such as an employer or supervisor of a practical experience (e.g., internship or practica, such as student teaching or shadowing), advisor, or career coach. These letters are used in the admissions process and provide information or details that cannot be found elsewhere on your application documents, such as academic and work achievements, character, or other personal characteristics.
Graduate programs typically request three to four letters of recommendation from faculty members or other professionals with knowledge of your academic or research skills and interests. By writing a letter, these professionals are endorsing their belief in your ability to succeed in the program to which you are applying. A strong letter of recommendation can make up for weaknesses elsewhere in your application; a weak letter can place your application on the bottom of the pile.
What are the differences between letters of recommendation, reference letters, and a reference list?
As opposed to letters of recommendation, reference letters are often requested as part of the application process for a job opportunity and typically come from a previous supervisor or employer. They may include information about employment history, work ethic, and personal accomplishments. A reference list, however, includes only names and contact information of individuals who can speak to your work history and related skills when contacted by a future employer.
What is the process of requesting a letter of recommendation?
To answer this question, we have to consider (a) when to request, (b) from whom you should request, and (c) how to request a letter.
- When. As a general rule, you should provide your recommenders a minimum of two months notice in advance of the date the application closes. If you are applying to graduate programs to begin in the fall semester following graduation, it is best to request letters at the beginning of the fall semester. If you plan to take time off between graduation and applying to a graduate program, it is ideal to request letters of recommendation prior to graduation; in this case, your recommenders may choose to write their letters while you are fresh in their mind and file them for later use.
- From Whom. On a graduate school application, letters of recommendation from a professor are typically preferred and seen as the “gold standard.” However, you may also choose to request a letter from an instructor (i.e., a course instructor without a PhD, such as a graduate student), supervisor of an internship or pre-professional experience (e.g., practica, student teaching), or manager/boss.
- How. Start by writing a concise request in which you provide some context for how this individual knows you (e.g., through research, a specific course or lab, student organization, etc.). Explain what you are applying for and briefly state your goals and/or relevant professional interests. Then, rather than simply asking if an individual can write you a letter of recommendation, it is best to ask if they are comfortable writing you a strong letter. Undoubtedly, your professor could write you a letter, but it may be vague, impersonal, or otherwise weak. Asking whether they can strongly recommend you improves the likelihood that your letter will enhance your application, as it gives the recommender the option to decline. (If this happens, be sure to thank the individual for their consideration!) If making the request through email (which is typical), offer to schedule a meeting with the individual to discuss the process further. DO NOT input contact information for recommenders into an online application system prior to making this request; most will send an automated email immediately. You do not want to blindside those who would be your recommenders.
My recommenders have agreed to write me letters…now what?
- Once the individuals you contacted have agreed to support your applications, your job is to make it as easy as possible for your recommenders.
- Start by providing supporting documentation, including your resume or CV and a draft of your personal statement.
- Create and share a chart or list of all schools or programs you are applying to; this document should include:
- School/program name
- URL of program website
- Application deadline
- Deadline for recommendation uploads, if applicable
- Link to the application (for online systems)
- Mailing address (for paper applications)
- Notes about specific formatting requirements (e.g., letterhead, electronic signatures)
- Specific questions required in the application, if applicable
- If you are submitting a paper application by mail, provide your recommenders with a pre-addressed, stamped envelope.
- Either in in-person meetings or via email, provide your recommenders with details about your reasoning for applying to the specific school(s) or program(s) and relevant professional experiences (e.g., academics, research, internships, etc.).
- If there is anything specific that you would like your letter to emphasize, be sure to mention this to your recommenders. As most applications require multiple, this is an opportunity to highlight different skills in each that the recommender can best speak to.
Suggested Action Steps & Notes
- Begin building relationships with faculty members as early on in your academic career as possible. If you can, increase your direct contact with professors through research, independent study, or student organizations.
- Ask whether your potential recommenders feel they can write you a strong letter, and be sure those you are asking for support know you well enough to speak to your strengths.
- In the application system, be sure to fill in all requested information about your recommenders to streamline the process (e.g., name, degree, title, email address, etc.).
- Whenever possible, schedule an in-person meeting to discuss this information with those who agree to write you a letter of recommendation. This gives you the opportunity to discuss your professional goals and interests, which your recommenders can then incorporate into their documents. Such letters will feel more personalized to those reviewing your application.
- Set reminders for yourself to follow-up with your recommenders. Remember, professors may be asked to write hundreds of letters of recommendation per year; it is your responsibility to keep track of whether or not their letters have been submitted. That said, one reminder (or two at most, if the deadline rapidly approaching) is plenty – don’t go overboard.
- Be aware that you will likely be asked to waive your right to see the letters that your recommenders write. This is typical; it allows your recommenders to speak candidly to their impressions of you.
- Thank your recommenders for their time and effort. If you are able to do so, providing a small token of appreciation (e.g., a handwritten note) can make a big statement.
- Keep your recommenders posted on the application process – if they are willing to endorse you, they will appreciate hearing about your success with interviews and acceptances!