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How to Secure Strong Grad School Letters of Recommendation

A well-written and enthusiastic letter of recommendation can go a long way toward getting you accepted into grad school. This guide covers what should be included in the letter, provides examples of sample letters, and shares how to make this process as easy as possible for those helping you out.

Author: James Mielke

Editor: Staff Editor

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Two women, one younger and one older, smiling and looking at a tablet together in a library filled with books.

Solid letters of recommendation can make the difference in whether you’re accepted or waitlisted for your graduate program of choice. A stale and generic letter of recommendation can do more harm than good. Who you ask to write your letters, how you ask them, and how well you prepare the writers impacts the quality of the recommendation letters you receive.

In this guide, we’ll share all you need to know about obtaining compelling and memorable letters of recommendation for graduate school. We’ll walk you through the process, highlight essential elements in the best letters, and provide examples. Continue reading to learn more about this vital part of the graduate school admission process.

Letters of Recommendation 101

While your favorite professor may be thrilled that you’re applying to grad school—and writing recommendation letters is a standard part of a professor’s job—you’re still asking for a favor. Who and how you ask for a recommendation letter is just the beginning of a process that can have a considerable impact on your grad school prospects. Keep reading to learn more about what to do before, during, and after someone writes a letter on your behalf.

What are letters of recommendation and what purpose do they serve?

Letters of recommendation often play a crucial role in the college admission process. While schools typically rely on objective elements such as academic performance and standardized test scores, you can set yourself apart with memorable recommendation letters. Recommendation letters give you a chance to reveal skills and attributes that are harder to quantify, such as work ethic, dedication to service, and character.

Similarly, imagine if you’re competing for a spot at a highly selective school and your grades, test scores, and resume are nearly identical to a fellow applicant. A letter of recommendation from a teacher, counselor, or employer that paints a picture of why you’re the perfect candidate could provide that final push toward an acceptance letter.

Who should you ask to write them?

The individuals you ask to write recommendation letters usually are people who can speak knowledgeably about you, your skills, and how you would benefit a prospective school. Rather than writing a boilerplate letter, the best letter writer offers meaningful insights and stories about you. Plus it goes without saying that the person needs to be an effective communicator. Some common letter writers are:

  • Teacher or professor
  • School counselor
  • Coach
  • Employer
  • Administrator
  • Academic advisor

How should you ask them?

After you zero in on potential letter writers, you’ll need to determine if they’re willing to craft recommendation letters on your behalf. Ideally, best practice points to asking in person, but that isn’t always an option. A well-crafted email is a solid second option if you cannot ask them in person.

Whether you ask in person or via email, be gracious, explaining that you understand that writing a recommendation letter takes time and that you’d be honored if they would agree to do so. Tell them why they’re your top choice, why their perspective is so valuable in this process, and why the graduate school program you’re applying to is the one for you. Be prepared with all the deadlines, addresses, and forms that might be required. Finally, shower them with sincere thanks for their willingness to help.

What information should you give the letter writers?

  • A list of the graduate programs you are applying to, including the due date of the application. Applying to an engineering program requires a vastly different set of skills than an MFA program, and one engineering program may have a different focus than another.
  • If the letter writer is a professor, include which of their classes you took, the grade you received, and any reminders of special projects or presentations you worked on. This potentially triggers personal memories of your performance and provides vital academic context for the letter. Matching up your performance with course objectives can help the writer highlight the skills you honed in their class.
  • Your most current resume or CV also adds valuable information to the letter-writing process. While a letter writer may have a solid understanding of your academic performance, a resume or CV gives them a broader understanding of your professional history and life beyond the classroom.
  • Be sure to include a copy of your transcript or a list of college courses you have taken, the grades you received, and your overall GPA. This gives the writer a broader view of your academic performance and skills. Include your GPA even if it’s less than ideal; this gives the writer an opportunity to tell the story behind the grades.
  • A short blurb about your goals for and after graduate school is also vital. Including objectives about whether you want to be heavily involved in research, enter the business world, or eventually work in academia gives the writer an understanding of why you want to enroll in graduate school.

A few other important things to remember:

  • Give letter writers plenty of time—at least a month or more. Best practice leans towards giving letter writers as much time as possible. Keep in mind, you’re probably not the only person asking for a recommendation letter. By asking first, your letter will be at the top of the list. Remember, because you’re asking for a favor, last-minute requests are annoying and could impact the quality of the letter.
  • Don’t forget to follow up. Once someone has agreed to write your recommendation letter, you’ll need to supply them with all the relevant information if you haven’t already done so. Send the information promptly, and add a note of thanks. As the deadline approaches you don’t need to hound the author of your recommendation letter. Still, a polite reminder about due dates is perfectly acceptable.
  • Be sure to send a thank-you note. Your letter writer did you a favor, so a proper “thank you” is in order. Sending a handwritten thank-you note is a tasteful move and is the perfect way to show that you’re genuinely grateful for the time the writer spent on your recommendation letter.

What Should Be Included in Your Letter of Recommendation?

While a grad school applicant can’t really dictate what details go into their letter of recommendation, they can sometimes help direct the letter’s content. Experienced letter writers won’t need much guidance, but applicants can ask the writer to cover various topics.

The best recommendation letters clearly state their intentions: advocating on behalf of a grad school applicant. Additionally, quality letters highlight the author’s connection with the applicant, offer a positive assessment of the applicant’s abilities, and spotlight top qualities. In the following section, we take a closer look at why these elements shape a letter that leads to enrollment.

The Writer’s Connection to You

An admission committee can quickly weed out superficial boilerplate recommendation letters. Letters that demonstrate the writer’s genuine connection with you typically discuss your unique attributes and experiences and portray you as a promising applicant.

You can build the writer’s connection to you by scheduling a one-on-one meeting, especially if you’ve been out of touch with the letter writer for a while. Reconnecting will refresh their memory of you and provide context for the letter. A face-to-face interaction builds rapport, adding incentive for them to write you a glowing recommendation.

Their Assessment of Your Ability

Once your letter writer has established their connection with you, a significant part of their letter involves assessing your ability. Individuals writing a recommendation letter can reference objective data like test scores and GPA, but remember that your prospective schools already have access to that information. The best recommendation letters encourage admission committees to look beyond metrics, focusing instead on the personal qualities that make you a unique candidate.

Rather than a review of past academic performance, an application effectively argues why you’re a good fit for the graduate program to which you’re applying. You want your letter writer to explain why and how you’ll enrich a graduate program if granted admission.

Your Top Qualities

As opposed to a lengthy narrative about why you’re a quality applicant, recommendation letters are typically short, thoughtful, and make their points concisely. Ideally, letter writers highlight a few of the top qualities that make you a standout candidate. The individual you’ve asked to write a recommendation letter should rely on specific examples, backing up their judgment with evidence.

Letters devoid of specific details run the risk of falling flat and feeling impersonal, as if the writer doesn’t know you well. This is why connecting or reconnecting with your letter writer is important—a letter based on faded memories and feigned enthusiasm will read as a shallow endorsement.

A High Recommendation

A recommendation letter aims to supplement a graduate school application, adding support from a reputable source. Prospective graduate students need a letter that makes two things clear: that the letter writer offers a high recommendation and that the student has what it takes to thrive in a graduate program.

A strong recommendation is essentially the letter’s thesis. In standout recommendation letters, the author explains why they’re writing (“I highly recommend…”), offers evidence to support their opinion (“In the five years I’ve known…,” and reiterates their thesis (“As a result, I strongly and unequivocally recommend…”).

Letters of Recommendation Examples

A solid recommendation letter directs the reader toward an obvious conclusion: that a grad school applicant should gain admission into their program of choice. Although a thoughtfully crafted recommendation letter helps an applicant, a vague and directionless letter can do more harm than good.

The following section highlights multiple examples of strong letters of recommendation that clearly state their case and offer evidence to support their recommendation. Additionally, several of the examples showcase the structure of a quality recommendation letter through annotated outlines.

  • Letter of Recommendation Example #1

    The first example of a solid recommendation letter comes from Dickinson College. This resource for faculty and staff provides five variations on the recommendation letter while underscoring the necessary traits of a successful endorsement. These elements include offering specific evidence to back up a recommendation, such as classroom performance, student performance in group settings, and concrete examples through exams and papers.

    This Dickinson document also spotlights the value of including information about an applicant’s potential shortcomings. No person is flawless, and thoughtful criticism acknowledges that a student has room to grow in an academic setting.

  • Letter of Recommendation Example #2

    Wordvice, a team of editing experts, provides a clear outline for a successful recommendation letter and breaks it down into smaller components. In focusing on the craft of writing, this group frames the recommendation letter alongside other organized essays, offering a thoughtful argument for a candidate’s admission into graduate school.

    Wordvice’s template breaks down a recommendation letter into multiple parts, including the greeting, opening paragraph, subsequent paragraphs laying out traits with detailed anecdotes, and a final paragraph offering a clear recommendation. Besides the outline, this page offers a well-crafted example for each template section.

  • Letter of Recommendation Example #3

    Shared from the University of California at Berkeley, this example of a standard letter of recommendation is clear, concise, and hits all the essential components of a solid endorsement for admission into graduate school. In this letter, the writer introduces themselves and their credentials while outlining their academic relationship with the applicant.

    This letter is particularly effective because it states its purpose immediately and clearly in the first sentence: “It is my pleasure to recommend Jane Doe for admission…” Throughout this example, the author also gives ample evidence when making claims like “highly intelligent,” “well disciplined,” and “great perseverance and initiative.”

  • Letter of Recommendation Example #4

    The University of Central Florida (UCF) provides quality insight into both strong and weak recommendation letters. Additionally, this brief guide offers tips for writing a solid recommendation letter and provides a helpful chart spotlighting ambiguous prose and how to improve it.

    UCF’s example of a standout recommendation letter is concise. It offers tangible examples and anecdotes to back up the support for the applicant. The letter highlights academic performance alongside specific personal traits describing the applicant as “warm,” “curious,” and “engaging.” This letter also begins and ends with the author offering a strong recommendation.

  • An Admissions Expert Weighs In

    RachelColeman

    Rachel Coleman is an IEC (independent education consultant) at College Essay Editor. She has worked for over seven years in the undergrad and graduate college counseling field, helping students across all disciplines (e.g., medical school, MBA, law school, Master’s, Ph.D., etc.) navigate the application process and especially improve their essays. She received her B.A. in Comparative Literature from Stanford University where she was the head tutor of Stanford’s Hume Center for Writing and Speaking. She then received her College Counseling Certificate from UCLA and is now an active member of the Higher Education Consultants Association (HECA). 

    Q: Who should you ask to write a recommendation letter?

    A: Many private colleges and scholarships require or allow letters of recommendation. This helps them understand students in the context of their recent education and experience. The letters help the reader paint a mental picture of the student beyond grades and test scores. Importantly, in this test-optional landscape, recommendation letters are playing a greater role than ever before.

    Students can request up to five letters. Two or three should be from academic advisors or professors either in the student’s major or in the field for graduate study. Students may request letters from two outside recommenders such as professors outside their major and graduate field, a sports coach, a boss, a mentor under whom the student did research, or a youth group leader or club advisor. Each person should know the student well and have specific examples/stories they can tell about the student in a letter.

    Q: Who shouldn’t write a recommendation letter?

    A: I always tell my students, “If you ask someone for a letter and they say no, accept the no.” In that scenario, the teacher is likely saying they wouldn’t have positive things to write, and it’s not a good idea to push a teacher for a letter they don’t want to write.

    Also, students shouldn’t ask prestigious figures who don’t know them, i.e. a school principal or an influential person with name recognition. Schools are looking for specific stories, so even if the student could get the local Congressional representative to write a letter, if that person didn’t have specific stories to tell about the student the letter wouldn’t be worth much.

    Q: How should you ask someone to write a recommendation letter?

    A: I recommend asking verbally, then after receiving a “yes” say, “Please check your email for a longer message with the colleges I’m applying to and their deadlines.” Then send the note.

    Q: What information should you provide the letter writer?

    A: Your note should include the following items:

    • Colleges’ deadlines and/or scholarship deadlines. Often, students apply to schools where they need to submit early (Oct. 1 / Nov. 1) to be eligible for certain scholarships. Your letter writers need to know those deadlines.
    • A list of most memorable moments in the class or activity in which the writer and student interacted. It’s easier for the student to generate specific examples (the time the student asked for extra help, the interesting Vietnam War research project the student did, etc.) than it is for the teacher to remember. Take the time to come up with three examples the teacher could mention and include them in the letter.

    Q: What attributes make up a solid letter of recommendation?

    A: Examples! The more specific the examples, the more credibility the writer has with the admissions team. That’s why it’s important for students to choose recommenders who know them well.

    Q: What information should be avoided in an ideal letter of recommendation?

    A: Examples that the recommender did not directly witness. If a chemistry professor writes about the student’s tennis accomplishments, the admissions team will not take the letter seriously. The chemistry professor should write about what he/she witnessed in class and the tennis coach should write about tennis.

    Q: Is it appropriate to influence the content of a recommendation letter?

    A: Yes and no. It’s great to provide a long list of examples and deadlines to support the recommender. It’s not acceptable to ask to see the letter itself.

    Q: Any final thoughts?

    A: With the rise of test-optional applications post-COVID, recommendations are playing a larger and larger role in the admissions process and students should take them seriously. A little extra work to contact and meet with the best prospects for recommendation letters can pay huge dividends.