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Requesting Recommendation Letters

As you progressed through the decision-making process in the earlier parts above, you should have had several significant conversations with faculty. These conversations will help you immensely as you seek several faculty to write recommendation letters on your behalf. That conversation will also help the faculty write meaningfully about your strengths. It’s best to avoid situations where faculty will only be able to write superficial letters where they will simply report your letter grade from a course.

1. CHOOSE YOUR RECOMMENDERS THOUGHTFULLY

As you ask for a reference letter, specifically ask if the recommender will write a strong letter on your behalf. Although it will likely be an awkward question to ask directly, it’s much better to find out in advance if they would submit a lukewarm letter. It is not uncommon for admissions committees to receive negative or lukewarm reference letters, which will significantly hurt your chances for getting admitted. Moreover, if the potential letter writer indicates some hesitation to write a strong letter and mentions any concerns, this will help prepare you to either thank them and move on to another potential recommender, OR address the concerns in your personal statements and/or interviews.

The letters of recommendation should support your claim that you have considered graduate school seriously. The letters must identify your strengths that will exemplify how you will become a successful graduate student. Letters that simply confirm grades received in courses are of little value to an admissions committee, since they will have your transcripts. Your letters of support should add new dimensions rather than be redundant.

2. WHO SHOULD WRITE YOUR LETTERS?

Ideally, you should select research mentors and faculty who can speak to your abilities to be a successful graduate student. Some ideal options are:

  • Faculty research mentors (most important reference)
  • Employer or supervisor during an internship or job in a field related to your discipline (it’s much better if the employer has a graduate degree)
  • Postdoctoral research mentor (if they worked closely with you in your research)
  • Faculty instructor (who can comment on more than simply your grade)
  • Academic advisor

Letters from these individuals are not recommended for your graduate application:

  • Family or friends
  • Religious advisors
  • Graduate students who have not completed their graduate degree
  • Employer or supervisor in an unrelated field or discipline
  • Faculty member in an unrelated academic discipline who can only report your final grade

Identify 5 or more faculty members whom you might ask to write a recommendation letter for you. Many programs require 3 references, but you’ll probably need to identify more references and use them for different programs and universities depending on the faculty members’ experiences and backgrounds. Admissions committees also value receiving reference letters from faculty who are very familiar with their university or graduate program, from having attended that university’s graduate program or from having been a faculty member at that institution.

For each request for a recommendation letter, make it as easy as possible for the faculty to complete your request. If you make it difficult or leave out essential details, you may annoy them and cause them to be less than excited to write a strong letter on your behalf. Remember that you may be asking them to submit multiple letters for different programs, so this will consume significant time and energy from them. For each request:

  1. Provide the name of the university and type of program to which you’re applying, along with clear instructions on how to submit the letter, deadline (remember to give them extra time if this is your first request to them), and if you’ll be asking for additional letters in the near future. You may want to check their calendar if they’ll be unavailable for a significant time period before the deadlines, which often occur around the end of the fall term, which is a busy time for most faculty.
  2. Provide a short summary of strengths and research experiences, along with your CV and personal statement, to refresh their memory of your background, strengths, and motivations for that particular program.
  3. Provide an email reminder about 10 days before it’s due. If you haven’t heard from them, consider one more gentle reminder a few days before the deadline.
  4. Provide an update to your letter writers after you receive invitations to interview or admissions offers, and when you make your final decision.
Hannah Kim's portrait

"Imposter syndrome and frequent rejections in academia (from conferences, publications, etc.) pose a challenge, but learning that these are very common and coming up with strategies helped me navigate my journey. One change that made a difference was shifting my mindset from ‘I don’t have what it takes; I’m a fraud; I’m only here as a diversity candidate’ to ‘I don’t know everything yet, but that’s okay because I can learn; faculty see promise in me and I can continue to grow; my diverse experiences and perspectives gives me a whole new creative angle.’ 

Graduate school is full of challenges, but the amount of intellectual and mental freedom we are given—nobody tells us what to think about!—is incredible and something not to be taken for granted."

— Hannah Kim, PhD candidate in Philosophy