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A Guide to Getting Great Letters of Recommendation

Amy Bergen profile image

Amy Bergen

A person writing in a notebook. There are other books and a muffin on the table as well.

You’re applying to graduate school or a competitive fellowship program and you're ready to start the application process, and so it's time to ask for letters of recommendation. But where do you begin?

Many fellowship and graduate programs require up to three reference letters, and while approaching three mentors for a time-consuming request can seem daunting, these letters are critical and may help to tip the application in your favor.

To ensure a great recommendation, make the task as easy as possible for your references by following the steps and suggestions outlined below.

Think of the best reference for your application

Your application essay or personal statement focuses on key areas like your career ambitions, field experience, or life story. Think of a mentor who knows you well enough to address most if not all of these areas.

Pro Tip: Ideally, the recommender knows how you’ll perform in the environment you want to enter. A biology professor can address your potential as a medical student, while a school administrator knows what you’ll bring to a teaching fellowship.

  • Pick someone with whom you have studied or worked with directly. Though it may be tempting to seek a reference from the big-name professor on campus (who you’ve never met), admissions committees won’t be impressed by a famous name alone; they’re more interested in getting to know you as a candidate.
  • Even a mentor outside your field of study can be a good reference, as long as they’re familiar with your skills and character.
  • If you need multiple letters, try to pick a diverse group of referrers, each of whom can address a different aspect of your candidacy, like academic achievements, work performance, and volunteer commitment.
  • Come up with more potential recommenders than you need. Someone may be busy or unavailable, and you’ll want to have backups.

Whomever you select, tell them why you’ve chosen them for the job by sharing your answers to the following questions:

  • What do you respect about their accomplishments?
  • How have they been a role model for you?

And finally, show enthusiasm and gratitude!

Ask politely, genuinely, and well in advance

Make your requests as early as possible. Good letters take time, and in many cases, yours isn’t the only letter they’ll be writing.

Give the recommender at least two weeks to write a letter; four to five weeks advanced notice is even better. If you’re applying to more than one graduate school and hope the recommender will send multiple letters, make your request known at least six weeks in advance of the respective deadlines. In addition to wanting to give your references enough lead time, you also want to leave yourself enough leeway to find a new reference should your original choice not be available.

You can make the initial request in person or on the phone, but follow up via email so the recommender has all the details in front of them. Get right to the point in your email subject line by leading with your name and the words "Reference Request."

Include these essentials:

  • A reminder of who you are and how you know each other if you haven’t interacted recently.
  • The date and method (online or through postal mail) by which reference letters should be submitted for your application.
  • Any forms that need to accompany the letter, such as a cover sheet.
  • A graceful "out" if they need to decline your request for any reason. Let them know you understand if they’re unable to meet the deadline or simply don’t feel comfortable providing the letter.

If you’re local, you can offer to meet in person (at their convenience) and go over your resume and accomplishments.

Pro Tip: Don’t forget to follow up with an addressed, stamped envelope if the letter needs to be mailed.

Check in with your referrers a week or so before the letter is due. Thank them again, remind them of the deadline, and mention they can reach out if they have questions.

Give your references plenty of information

Your references don’t know as much about your background as you do, and when you’re immersed in applications, this is easy to forget!

Be ready to provide them with:

  • Your resume.
  • Your personal statement or project proposal for the application. If you didn’t need to submit a proposal or personal statement, write a paragraph explaining your goals for the program.
  • Copies of papers and exams you completed in class if your reference is an instructor. You could also write a brief summary of what you accomplished in their class.
  • A description of the project, program, or fellowship (often found on the program website).
  • A copy of your academic transcript.

You can deliver hard copies or send links via email; ask which method they prefer.

Provide a template

To save your recommender time, let them know what you want the letter to say by offering a list of accomplishments and learning experiences you’d like for them to highlight.

You can send a bulleted list or an outline of points you’d like the letter to cover, or you can even write a full draft. Let your recommender know they’re free to use the template as they see fit. They may choose not to use it, and that’s okay!

Pro Tip: Applications will usually offer a check box to confirm whether you waive the right to see the finished letters submitted on your behalf. It’s up to you, but selection committees may take recommendations more seriously if you waive your right to access.

And finally, send a thank you note to each recommender! A handwritten note is a great personal touch, but a warm and genuine email will also work. Keep them updated on your progress as they’re now invested in your success and will want to know how things turned out.

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Amy Bergen profile image

Amy Bergen

Amy Bergen is a writer based in Portland, Maine. She has experience in the social impact space in Baltimore, Maryland, the educational museum sphere in Columbus, Ohio, and the literary world of New York City.

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