How to Get Great Letters of Recommendation for Grad School
How to Get Great Letters of Recommendation for Grad School

If you’re planning to apply to grad school, one of the top items on your to-do list is likely getting letters of recommendation.

But who? How? When? This part of the application process can generate anxiety for even the most confident grad school hopeful.

Don’t worry, we've got your back. With input from admissions experts at the University of Washington, we’ve compiled a list of eight tips for asking for — and receiving — great letters of recommendation. Follow this simple formula and get recommendations that will help your grad school application land in the “yes” pile.

1. Do Your Research

First, read your program’s requirements carefully. Graduate programs typically require you to submit two or three letters of recommendation with your application, but there are variations, depending on the school and type of program.

2. Plan Ahead

Remember to give your recommenders plenty of time to write their letters — a couple months of lead time is not too much! This is especially true if you are asking them to write multiple letters for you (for different programs).

Besides being considerate, giving your recommenders an early heads-up also leaves them ample time to produce a strong letter. If you ask someone a week before the deadline, it shows a (possibly annoying) lack of planning on your part. Plus, it’s possible they won’t be able to turn it around in that timeframe.

3. Identify the Right Recommenders

You should know your recommenders well and have a good working relationship with them. They need to be able to speak to things like your work ethic, professionalism, writing ability, lab and/or research skills, readiness for grad school and what you can contribute to the program.

While former professors are an obvious choice, don’t assume all your recommendations need to come from that category. “That’s a common misconception,” says Crystal Galván, a graduate adviser in the School of Interdisciplinary Arts & Sciences at University of Washington Bothell. “A campus staff member or program director that you worked with directly might be a great choice, too.”

What if you’ve been out of school for a while and don’t have any academic contacts? If that’s the case, you can often substitute professional references for academic ones, says Galván. But explain this choice in your statement of purpose, and don’t be afraid to reach out to the graduate program for any special instructions.

Just like for academic recommendations, make sure your professional recommenders know you and your strengths well. It might be tempting to ask someone like your company’s CEO, but that approach can backfire if they can’t provide specifics.

“It should be someone who knows your work performance and can talk about it — whether that’s a supervisor, a peer or even a client,” says Randell Hernandez, who has served as the director of admissions for the Executive MBA program at the UW for the last 15 years. “For an MBA program, for example, I think current and former managers are probably the best sources for recommendations.”

4. Communicate Intentionally

Once you have your list of possible recommenders, it’s time to reach out. Schedule a meeting (virtual or in-person) to discuss your request.

Seem unnecessary? Galván explains why it’s a vital step. In this meeting you can:

  • Discuss more fully why you’re interested in graduate school in general, and these programs in particular.
  • Explain the process and the timeline, and talk about next steps.
  • Open up the lines of communication and answer any questions they might have on the spot.

If you can’t meet one-on-one, email works too, according to Galván. But she also suggests that you pay attention to how they respond to your request.

“If the person hesitates when you ask them for a letter, then it’s probably better to ask someone else,” she says.

Hernandez agrees. “The challenge with letters of recommendation is that once you ask the person to do it, you lose control of the process,” he says. “So I always advise applicants to choose their recommenders with care.”

5. Prepare a Portfolio

Whew! Once your recommenders are on board, the next step is to supply them with materials that will make their task easier: a digital or physical portfolio.

The portfolio should include copies of:

  • Key application materials, including program descriptions and deadlines
  • Your personal statement
  • Your resume and/or curriculum vitae (CV)
  • A writing sample
  • Your unofficial transcripts
  • Anything else that could help your recommender write a strong letter

If you want to handle this task digitally, a good option is to place the materials in a dedicated folder on a service like Google Drive, OneDrive or Dropbox.

6. Explain Any Academic Dips or Gaps

Everyone understands that life isn’t always predictable. If you’ve experienced hardship — such as the death of a family member — that has impacted either your academic record or your career trajectory, it could be helpful to let your recommender know about it. This allows them to help explain the circumstances.

“For students who had a difficult quarter or semester (or two), it’s helpful for admissions committees to learn about the reasons why, especially as many graduate programs are moving to more holistic admission processes,” Galván says. “Your recommender can help address these gaps in their letter and serve as your advocate.”

7. Follow Up

It’s OK to follow up with your recommenders as the deadline approaches (these are busy people, after all). Many graduate programs give you the option of sending a reminder directly through the application portal, according to both Galván and Hernandez.

“Our portal at the University of Washington has that feature embedded in it,” Galván says. “It’s nice because it allows you to avoid that uncomfortable conversation if you feel anxious about the situation.”

Email or phone reminders are fine too. Better to risk being a little bothersome than to have a recommender completely forget about your request!

8. Remember to Say Thanks

Good manners count! Don’t forget to send your recommenders a thank-you note after they submit the letter and your application is complete. This gesture goes a long way toward maintaining a good relationship, and it’s quite possible you’ll have to call on this network for further help down the road.

And be sure to let your recommenders know the outcome of your application! Even if you weren’t accepted, they’ll appreciate the follow-up.

Take a Deep Breath, Then Move Forward

If you follow all these tips, you can relax — you’ve done your part. The rest is up to the recommender.

Learn More

Want to discover more helpful content about grad school? Check out our go-to guide for applying to graduate school for links to additional articles.

For more career tips and industry trends, visit the News & Features section of our website, and subscribe to our email list. To learn more about UW Professional & Continuing Education certificates, specializations, degrees and courses, explore your options or contact us.

Author David Hirning

David Hirning

David Hirning is an accomplished writer and editor with extensive experience in both tech and higher education. He began his career in journalism, then spent over a decade as an editor at Microsoft, where he worked on Encarta Encyclopedia and related reference products.

David worked for six years as a full-time writer and content manager at UW Professional & Continuing Education. He also operated his own editorial consulting business, with stints at leading companies like Amazon and Expedia, and taught English for two years in Costa Rica.

David has served as an instructor for the UW Certificate in Editing program and as a teaching assistant for the UW Certificate in Storytelling & Content Strategy. He holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Stanford University and a Certificate in Literary Fiction from the UW.

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