Letters of Recommendation

I know people cringe when they think of having to ask favors of past professors, employers, or other mentors, but at some point in time, those people also had to ask favors of their superiors, so they can at least understand where you are coming from. The most important thing is that you respect their time and give them PLENTY of time to write your letters! Six weeks is an ideal amount of time to give a letter writer, and I wouldn't give any less than three. Typically you will need anywhere from 2 to 5 letters, but it is usually 3. You want to ask your letter writers EARLY if they will be willing to write you a POSITIVE letter of recommendation. You want to make sure that they have a good professional opinion of you, so that is why you have to ask if the letter will in fact be positive.

If someone says they will write a letter for you, you want to give them the following information:

  • Detailed list of your desired programs including letter deadlines and whether you will pick up the letter from them or if you need them to mail the letter directly to the program (this information may look good in a spreadsheet or table of some sort).
  • Detailed reasoning about why you want to attend each program and possibly what type of research or which faculty members you would look forward to working with at that given school.
  • Copy of your statement of purpose to each program.
  • Resume chronicling your work experience and extra curricular activities would also help. Many of your letter writers may only have had you in class and may not know a great deal about what you do outside of the classroom.
  • If you are asking them to mail the letters directly to the program, you will want to include an addressed, stamped envelope as well.
  • If you have the option, however, pick up the letters yourself from your letter writers and ask for them well before your own deadline.

Other Considerations

  • Some letter writers may ask you to create a draft of the letter of recommendation that they will tweak and then sign off on. Do not be alarmed if this happens to you. Many faculty members get a lot of requests, so this is the way that they accommodate many students. Do your best to draft a letter that states the capacity in which you know the letter writer and what skills and characteristics you have exhibited in their presence.
  • Some application processes require that your letter writers upload the letters to an online application system. If that is the case, just make sure that you give the letter writers clear instructions on how to deliver your letter.
  • Many people ask who the best people to write their letters would be, and I would say to pick the people that know you the best. It is no good to have the Dean of the College if that person only knows you on a very superficial level and never had you in class.
  • Most programs will specify if they want you to have letters from all faculty or if they want a mix of professors and employers. Most professional programs want a mix while most research based programs would want mainly faculty.

Make sure the people you choose can speak to your ability to succeed in a graduate program and in the field, and make sure that you provide them with enough information to write a good letter.

Thank you notes to your letter writers are always appreciated!