How to ask for a letter of recommendation for graduate school

Letters of recommendation often make or break a graduate school application. It’s important to think carefully about who to ask and how to do it.

Ideally, you should approach former supervisors who know you and your work well. Different programs require different types of recommendation letters, but the process of requesting them is similar. Follow these five steps to guarantee a great recommendation, including program-specific tips and email examples.

Step 1: Choose who to ask

Your first step is to decide who you’ll ask to write a letter for you. Ideally, this should be someone who you worked with outside of just the classroom context—for example, a former professor who supervised your research.

It’s important to ask someone who knows you well, even if they are less well known than other professors at your institution. Graduate admissions committees want to get a good sense of your ability to perform well in their program, and this is difficult to accomplish if your recommender only knows you as a face in the crowd.

Who you should ask also strongly depends on the type of program that you’re applying to. Different programs prefer different qualities in their admitted students, and thus weigh types of recommenders differently. Take a look at the program-specific tips below.

Step 2: Reach out and request a meeting

The next step is to get in contact with your potential recommender. If you haven’t talked to them in a while, begin your email with a quick reminder to jog their memory. Be friendly, direct, and concise.

If possible, it’s best to plan a meeting to discuss your request. However, if this isn’t practical (for example, if you’ve moved far away from your undergrad institution), you can skip this step and head straight to the third.

Step 3: Ask for a letter of recommendation

Make your request during your meeting or, if necessary, via email. Let them know what sort of programs you are applying to and when the deadlines are. Make sure to give your recommenders plenty of time!

Instead of just asking for a recommendation letter, specifically ask if they can write you a strong recommendation. This allows your recommender an “out”—for example, if they don’t feel they know you well enough. A bad or even lukewarm recommendation is the kiss of death for any application, so it’s important to ensure your letters will be positive!

If they say they can’t give you a strong recommendation, don’t panic. This gives you the opportunity to ask someone else who can provide you a better recommendation.

Step 4: Share your resume and other materials

You should send your resume or CV to your recommenders, along with any other material that might jog their memory or aid in their recommendation.

For instance, you may want to send along your statement of purpose or writing sample if one is requested in your application. Admission committees are looking for a cohesive story that the letters of recommendation, personal statement, and CV work together to tell.

You should also check whether the school provides any prompts or guidelines for recommenders. Many programs want your recommenders to comment on your potential to serve in the specific role the graduate program prepares you for. See the program-specific tips below.

Step 5: Remind your recommenders of upcoming deadlines

Finally, you should send an email to your recommenders a few weeks before the letters are due, reminding them of the deadline and asking if there is anything else you can send them to assist in writing the letter.

If any materials are late, programs will often reject your entire application, so it is imperative that your recommenders get their letters in on time. However, you should also keep in mind that your letter writers are probably quite busy, so don’t send too many reminders!

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