How to Get the Best Recommendation Letters

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Last updated on June 12th, 2018 by our Product Team

Nearly every graduate school application will require at least one (and probably several) letters of recommendation. If you’re applying for a teaching assistantship, scholarship or grant you can expect additional recommendation requirements. A letter of recommendation is like a personal statement in that there is space to share outstanding accomplishments or specific goals for the admissions department to take into consideration when deciding which students may be admitted to the program. Your grade point average is typically used as a benchmark during the initial phase of acceptance and rejections; students applying to some programs must meet a minimum to even be considered. But, letters of recommendation can make a huge difference when candidates are otherwise equally qualified.

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You will usually be asked for three separate letters, none written by you or an immediate family member (or another person with a relationship to you that could create a conflict of interest). It’s a good idea to keep a list of people who could potentially write you a letter of recommendation. It can be frustrating before applications are due because you’re at the mercy of the person holding the pen. Rule number one: if you’re asking for a recommendation letter, you should be very sure that you can rely on the person you are asking. Your best bet is to ask as early as possible and stay organized. Many deadlines fall in November, December and January—for professors, these weeks and months are filled with finals, holidays and the start of a new semester. If you want to be at the top of the queue, request a letter of recommendation early. Allow between three weeks and a month of time for a well-written letter.

Generally, the people writing your letters of recommendation will have been your direct supervisor or professor. This person could also be adviser of a club in which you took on a leadership role or achieved highly. Or, maybe this person was your supervisor or adviser at an internship where you performed really well. These are people that have witnessed how you work. Don’t just seek out the most famous professor at your university unless this person knows you well. The most important thing is that this person has a deep interest in your success.

Set up a meeting with the people on your list to speak about your future plans to ask if he or she would support you in your pursuit of a graduate degree. If you’re comfortable, ask if the letter writer can include specific achievements and skills. For example, if you published a research paper during your undergraduate studies, the professor that oversaw that project would be a great person to write you a letter.

Some people you ask to write you a letter might politely decline. If this happens, don’t worry. There are a number of reasons someone might say “no”—mounting personal deadlines, a stressful semester, an illness, a big personal project. A professor might not feel like he or she knows you well enough to write a stellar letter of support. If this is the case, it won’t be good for either of you. You should know if you underperformed in a class or at an internship—and avoid asking that supervisor.

It may feel forward to provide materials for the letter of recommendation, and in some situations it is. But many times, the writer will appreciate any help a student can offer. This professor may have ten other letters to write in two weeks. They will take at least an hour each, if the person writing the letter is thoughtful and thorough.

Those who write letters of recommendation may like to see something they have graded of yours, so keep tests and papers. Give it to him or her when you ask for a letter of recommendation. If you know that a mentor is particularly absentminded, be sure he or she understands the deadline. Send a polite reminder and provide the addressed envelope and letterhead if it will guarantee a timely letter of recommendation.

Some professors or advisors might want to peruse the rest of your application for other material to pull from while writing a letter. Understand that he or she might read your personal statement and draw on that to add to your letter of recommendation.

Some programs require that the student waive his or her right to read the letter of recommendation after it is written. In this case, the school may require that the letter be written and sealed in an envelope bearing the writer’s signature along the envelope’s adhesive flap. There isn’t really a way around this, and it gives the professor some comfort knowing that you won’t read his or her words about you. But remember, it’s likely a very positive letter if someone agreed to write it at all.

After the meeting, send a thank you card. It is a nice gesture that will go a long way in showing your appreciation. Once you receive the letters you need, designate a folder just for these documents to keep them safe.

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