How to Get Started on Your Letters of Recommendation for Graduate School

Discover the essential steps for obtaining strong letters of recommendation for your grad school application, including tips on crafting a persuasive request and maintaining strong relationships with your recommenders.

Debby C.

By Debby C.

Posted March 27, 2023

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To apply to graduate school, applicants are typically required to provide three letters of recommendation. These letters should come from individuals who can speak to the applicant's academic abilities and achievements, as well as their character and personality traits. In addition, letters of recommendation should come from people who are experts in the applicant’s intended area of study, such as professors, research advisors, academic mentors, and/or work supervisors.

For example, a strong letter of recommendation will include specific details to provide admission committee members with examples of the applicant's strengths and abilities. This can be done by including anecdotes on the applicant's past achievements, such as how they excelled on a project or demonstrated leadership skills in a particular situation. By highlighting these specific instances, the recommender can effectively illustrate the applicant's potential for success to admission committee members.

Many applicants find this step in the application process particularly challenging, especially when they're unsure about who to ask.

Below are some tips to help you approach your professors and begin the conversation about letters of recommendation. If you’ve graduated from college and have not kept in touch with professors, these tips may also be helpful as you work with your supervisor, mentor, or someone you intend to ask for a letter of recommendation.

  1. Attend classes or scheduled meetings regularly and be on time. Professors/supervisors often notice and appreciate people who try to be present and punctual.
  2. Participate in discussions and ask questions. This shows that you are engaged and interested in the material, and it can also help to clarify concepts that you may need help with.
  3. Take advantage of office hours. Office hours are a great time to ask questions, seek feedback, or chat about your interests and goals with your professor or supervisor.
  4. Show initiative and interest in the subject. This can be done by attending extra lectures, joining clubs or groups related to the subject, or doing research on your own. Discuss these activities with your professor or supervisor to share your progress and plans.
  5. Lastly, remember that professors and supervisors are busy and might have many students/employees, so be mindful of their time and give them adequate notice when you ask them to write a letter of recommendation for you.

Finally, remember to be thoughtful about whom to ask for letters of recommendation. When asking for a letter of recommendation, try to gauge how enthusiastic the person is about writing a letter for you. A halfhearted or lukewarm letter is often worse than no letter at all.

If you have questions about the graduate school admissions process, feel free to reach out for a free 30-minute intro call on my Leland coaching profile. We will discuss your individual circumstances during our meeting and brainstorm ways to strengthen your application.

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