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Guide to Asking for Letters of Recommendation for Graduate School

Guide to Asking for Letters of Recommendation for Graduate School
Jacqueline DeMarco
Jacqueline DeMarcoUpdated January 10, 2023
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Graduate school applicants have a lot of to-dos to check off their list when getting ready to apply. One such to-do is securing the necessary letter of recommendation for graduate school applications. Having good letters of recommendation can really make an application stand out.Securing a standout letter requires selecting the right individuals to ask, and then also knowing how to approach them with your request. By knowing the proper way to ask and understanding what information is needed, you’ll stand a better shot at acing this part of your grad school applications.

What Are Letters of Recommendation?

A letter of recommendation is a letter written on behalf of an individual attesting to their experience and skillset. When it comes to graduate school letters of recommendation, usually the letter is an endorsement of why an applicant would be a good fit for the graduate school program they’re applying to.It’s common to ask current or former professors or bosses for letters of recommendation when applying to graduate school. Ideally, the applicant would ask someone who knows them and their work well and who has positive things to say about them. 

Do All Programs Require Letters of Recommendation?

Typically, graduate program applications require three letters of recommendation. However, all programs have varying requirements — some may require only one or none at all. It’s a good idea to carefully review each program’s application requirements before applying. 

Who Should You Ask for a Letter of Recommendation?

If an applicant is wondering who to get letters of recommendation from for grad school, they need to consider who they know that would write them the best letter. There are no hard-and-fast rules surrounding who applicants need to ask, but generally someone who can speak to their education or work experience — such as a boss, professor, or volunteer supervisor — does the trick. It’s better not to ask family and friends for a letter of recommendation for graduate school.If a student is asking former professors for a letter of recommendation, it’s okay if the professor focuses on a different field of study than the graduate program. What’s important is that the professor feels comfortable writing the letter. 

What If You Don't Get Any Responses?

It can be a good idea to request letters of recommendation well before the graduate school application is due. Getting a head start can help applicants make sure they have enough time to track down willing letter writers and give them adequate time to write the letters. Asking for letters of recommendation at least 30 days before the application due date can give applicants sufficient time without stressing about it.If a request for a letter of recommendation goes unanswered, it’s okay to follow up in case they simply missed the email or call. Similarly to filling out a FAFSA for grad school, this is a crucial step you want to ensure you don’t miss.

4 Steps to Approaching Someone About a Letter of Recommendation

To better their odds of successfully securing letters of recommendation, applicants can take the following steps to make their request. 

1. Making a Request

Not sure how to ask for a letter of recommendation for graduate school? It’s not as scary as it sounds — applicants just have to ask politely. Usually this is done by email, but if the applicant has a more personal relationship with their desired letter writer, they can call them to make the ask and follow up.

2. Providing More Information

When asking someone to write a letter of recommendation for graduate school, it can be helpful to provide all of the information the letter writer needs to quickly write their letter. This will make taking time out of their busy schedules to write the letter less daunting and improve the odds that they agree to write it. Here’s some information worth including in the initial email:
  • Due date
  • Program and school name
  • How you know each other (example: I was in your senior seminar last spring)
If they agree to write the letter, it can also be helpful to include:
  • Current resume or C.V.
  • Copy of college transcript with grades and overall GPA listed
  • A quick blurb about academic goals for graduate school and future career goals
  • Instructions for submitting the letter to the graduate schools being applied to

3. Not Waiting Until the Last Minute

Again — it’s a good idea to get a head start when asking someone for a favor like this. If the letter writer feels like they don’t have enough time to write it, they’ll be less likely to agree to help. Asking too close to the due date can also make the applicant look irresponsible in the eyes of the letter writer. It will also add unnecessary stress to your plate, on top of concerns like how much student debt is too much.

4. Sending a Thank You Note

Once the letter is written, it’s really important to write a thoughtful thank you note. That way, the letter writer doesn’t feel taken for granted. Especially if this person is a mentor who’s offered guidance along the way, from general career advice to tips on handling the cost of medical school, for instance, that’s a relationship you’ll likely want to maintain.

What Should a Letter of Recommendation Include?

A good letter of recommendation will highlight information about the applicant that isn’t included in their application. Ideally, letters of recommendation validate and expand on the information the applicant features in their personal essay and what’s included in their transcripts. For example, this might include:
  • Personal qualities
  • Accomplishments
  • Experiences

Sample Request for a Letter of Recommendation:

If a student is unsure of how to ask for a letter of recommendation for graduate school, they can use this sample request for a letter of recommendation from their professor for grad school applications. If they aren’t asking a professor, they can adapt this letter to work for a former boss, colleague, or other connection. Dear [their name],I’m applying to [name of graduate program] at [school name] with the hopes of furthering my knowledge in the field of [field name]. After studying relevant subjects in your [name of class] class during [semester and year], I deepened my interest in pursuing a career in [role name] after graduate school. Would you be willing to write me a letter of recommendation by [due date]?Best,[your name]

The Takeaway

Applying for graduate school is a major undertaking and one that applicants need to spend plenty of time preparing for. Asking for letters of recommendation far in advance of the application due date can help applicants secure the best letters possible that can make their application stand out. 

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Frequently Asked Questions

How do you ask for a letter of recommendation for graduate school?
Who should be asked for graduate school letters of recommendation?
When is it a good time to start asking for letters of recommendation to get into graduate school?
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About the Author

Jacqueline DeMarco

Jacqueline DeMarco

Jacqueline DeMarco is a personal finance writer and editor based in Southern California. While she spends the bulk of her time writing about complex financial issues, she also tackles a variety of subjects ranging from food to fashion to travel. Her work can be found across dozens of publications such as Credit Karma, LendingTree, Northwestern Mutual, The Everygirl, and Apartment Therapy.
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