How to Receive Strong Letters of Recommendation for Graduate School

By Kaela Singleton
Doctoral Candidate in Interdisciplinary Program in Neuroscience

Letters of recommendation are a critical component of any graduate school application. Here, we share general steps for how to request strong letters of recommendation and what information you should provide to your letter writers to ensure your letter is as personal as possible. Individual graduate programs will provide a portal and often times a prompt that detail the information letter writers should include, so be sure this is conveyed to your writers. Typically, graduate programs ask for a minimum of three letters with a maximum of five letters.

Steps in Requesting Strong Letters of Recommendations

1. Identify Letter Writers

Begin thinking of faculty members or advisors that can provide you with a strong letter of recommendation. Consider people who have worked with you throughout your undergraduate career, and can speak to your dedication and commitment to the field. This can include professors who have taught you in courses, guided independent research projects, and/or career mentors.

2. Request Letters Early

Writing a strong letter of recommendation is time-consuming – especially when mentors or faculty members have so many to write. Be sure to reach out to your letter writers at least 3 months in advance to get the ball rolling, particularly if you need to reestablish a connection. You want to provide your writers with enough time to provide a thoughtful letter. Do not be afraid, as deadlines get close, to send friendly reminders regarding your letters.

3. Schedule a Meeting

Once you’ve established who you are asking for letters, schedule a meeting. Send a simple email asking if they are willing to write you a “strong letter of recommendation.” You will also want to ask if they would be willing to meet with you to discuss aspects of your performance and/or career goals you’d like them to highlight. Requesting a strong letter of recommendation is key. If a professor responds saying they cannot provide you a strong letter do not get discouraged. You want to ensure your letters come from mentors who know your professional and scholastic achievements and can speak to your work ethic and enthusiasm, particularly in research. Once you’ve received confirmation that they can provide a strong letter and had your meeting, fill out the online portal information including their name, and email address.

4. Prepare for Your Meeting

Once you’ve identified your letter writers and scheduled a meeting, come prepared. In addition to the information listed below, ask your letter writer if they require any other information. Sometimes, they will ask for a draft of your personal statement. For guidance on personal statements, see Writing an Effective Personal Statement for PhD Graduate Programs.

5. Update Your CV

While your letter writers may know you well, they are not privy to all of your accomplishments as a student. Providing your CV is a great starting place for them. Make sure your CV is up to date and has your current GPA and accomplishments. For guidance on CV writing see 7 Tips for Writing a Successful CV.

6. Generate a List of Programs & Due Dates

Generate a list of graduate programs you are applying to and include the due date of your letters. In bullet points under each program emphasize why you choose these graduate programs and provide specific aspects about each program that you like. This can include faculty, research focus, or availability of program-specific resources. This information can be found on the graduate school website. When included in your recommendation letter, this shows your letter writer that you’ve thoughtfully communicated your interest in the graduate program. Therefore, during your scheduled meeting, be sure to highlight to your letter writer how and why you decided to apply to each program.

7. Discuss your Career Goals & Plans

If you haven’t already, be sure to discuss with your letter writer how this graduate program aligns with your career goals. The goal is for your letter to convey competence and confidence in the next steps of your training. If you have published any papers or presented at conferences, encourage your letter writer to include that information as well. You want a clear picture of how your past and present ambitions have set you up to succeed in graduate school. Additionally, if you struggled in a course or took time off from your studies, speak candidly about that with your letter writer. They can address how you have overcome challenges or improved throughout your training. 

8. Send a Thank-You Note

After you’ve successfully completed your applications and all of your letters are in, be sure to thank your letter writers for their time. This can be either a note or via email. Letter writing is time-consuming but an important part of applying to any program or job. A thank you note goes a long way in maintaining a relationship with mentors or advisors.

The key to a successful letter of recommendation comes from clear communication and setting expectations. Come to your scheduled meeting prepared to discuss why you’ve chosen graduate programs, how doctoral training aligns with your career goals, and any other information you think is important to convey. Be sure to approach your letter writers early, and provide reminders as needed.

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