Grad Applications 101: Getting Letters of Rec

By Emily Elia: Who should you ask for a letter of recommendation? How do you ask?

Hands typing on a keyboard, illuminated by the screen.

Letters of recommendation are an integral part of many applications, and graduate school applications are no exception! Even though we all need to ask for letters of recommendation to apply to grad school, the process of getting letters can still feel awkward. Getting letters of recommendation can be an uncertain process, as well. Who should you ask for a letter of recommendation? How do you ask? What kind of information should you provide for letter writers? This article seeks to offer some insight on how you can get your letters of recommendation together for your grad applications.

Who should you ask?

Letters of recommendation should not come from just anybody who knows you well; you want your letters to come from people who can honestly speak to why you are a good fit for a graduate program. Asking a professor for a letter even though you’ve never really spoken with that professor is probably not a great idea no matter how high your grade was in their class. Much of the wisdom out there on letters of recommendation claims that a lukewarm letter is just as harmful to your application as a negative letter. You want undoubtedly positive letters, so ask people who you have built a good relationship with! If a potential writer is not comfortable with this favor, they will likely let you know. However, if you do not receive a direct no but do receive a lot of hesitation, that may be a sign that this person is not the best fit, either.

Most graduate program applications ask for three letters of recommendation. If you are currently enrolled in college, your letters of recommendation are likely going to come from three of your professors. More specifically, you ideally want to ask professors who are in or related to the field of your graduate program. If you are applying to a master’s program in engineering, then the professor of the art history class you took as an elective may not be the best letter writer for this occasion, regardless of how well they may know you. However, you do typically have three letters to acquire, and some of the professors who know you best may very well be from unrelated fields. If need be, it is okay to ask a professor from an unrelated field for a letter of recommendation if they are able to speak about skills you have that they believe make you a good fit for the field you wish to go into. If a professor does not feel comfortable writing a letter for you because their expertise does not align with the grad program of your interest, they will likely be honest and let you know. Ideally, though, you should get letters from professors whose own focuses align with your programs of interests to some degree.

If you are not currently enrolled in college, then past professors may not be the clear choice for your letter writers. For professionals who are currently applying to graduate school, your professional contacts, such as your boss or a mentor, are great candidates! A boss or mentor-figure can certainly speak to your work ethic, drive, and other skills and qualities that will color your potential for success. A colleague may also be a good fit for a letter writer. And, if you had a good relationship with a former professor, it does not hurt to reach out and ask for a letter of recommendation.

How should you ask?

Asking for a letter can feel awkward, but remember that everyone has been there! One of the most important aspects of asking for a letter is doing so in a timely manner. You should not ask anyone for a letter without giving them multiple weeks to be able to write it. Try to avoid asking for a letter at least a month out from the application deadline, and preferably well before that. The earlier, the better! When asking, you want to communicate your appreciation as well as your consideration for the person’s time. Writing a letter of recommendation can be a sizable task, and it calls for the letter writer to vouch for you personally. Make sure you show that you not only value the letter writer’s input but also their time and effort!

You want to ask formally and not off the cuff. Generally, arranging a meeting with a potential letter writer in order to speak to them about your plans for graduate school applications is a great time to ask. However, given COVID-19, meeting in person may not be feasible in 2020. If meeting over some form of video chat is an option, you could still reach out to your professor about wanting to meet with them virtually to discuss grad school applications and letters of recommendation. If email seems like your best option due to the circumstances of the current pandemic, though, then that’s okay, too! Northeastern University has published a great guide on asking for letters of recommendation from professors over email.

What information is important to provide?

If your letter writer is on board, the next important step is to send them information that will help them with writing a strong letter. The person may ask you to provide select materials, but, generally, here are some resources you should be ready to send to your letter writer as soon as possible:

  • A list of the graduate programs you are applying to, including the due date of the application
  • If the letter writer is a professor, include which of their classes you took and the grade you received in the classes
  • Your most current resume/C.V.
  • A copy of your transcript or a list of college courses you have taken and the grades you received, along with your overall GPA
  • A short blurb about your goals for and after graduate school, such as whether or not you want to be heavily involved in research, go into industry, etc.

You may also want to include the personal statement you plan to submit. Ask your professor if they would like to read it. They may not be able to, but it can be a big help to them in drafting an appropriate letter. Ask if including it would be helpful, and, if so, send it along once you have it written.

A final important piece of information is how the letter writer can submit their letter. This will vary by school. Once you have learned how to submit application materials for each of your programs, inform your letter writer so that they do not have to go hunting for how to submit their letter. Often, you will enter their emails in a program’s application portal, and they will receive an email that allows them to submit the letter electronically. If any program still requires a physical copy of a letter, it is generally in good taste to provide your letter writers with an addressed and stamped envelope that they can use to physically send their letter. Outlining the submission process of each school for your letter writer is a helpful bit of organizational information to provide.

Thank your letter writers!

Writing a letter of recommendation is a big deal! Yes, we all need to ask for them at some point, but that does not diminish the fact that you’re asking someone important in your life to speak positively on your behalf—a big ask! After your application is submitted, send your letter writer a handwritten thank you card. A handwritten note usually goes much farther than an email as it is more personal and comes across as more thoughtful. A thank you email is sufficient as well, but a handwritten note is always a nice gesture. If you are looking for some thank you note guidance, here is a good start!

It is also nice to follow up with your letter writers. Let them know where you decide to attend graduate school, and don’t be afraid to send them an email every now and then during graduate school to say hello! They would probably love to hear from you.

Further Reading:

Grad School 101: Writing the personal statement

Grad School 101: Approaching the application process

Grad School 101: 4 easy ways to prep for your first year of grad school

About the author: Originally from Massachusetts, Emily Elia is a second-year Ph.D. student in political science. She graduated from the University of Alabama in 2018 and currently studies comparative politics with a focus on Latin America.