How to Ask for Recommendations for Your Graduate School Applications

Recommendation letters are an important part of your graduate school application. Admissions committees often use recommendation letters to narrow the pool of applicants after they have taken a look at your statistical data (e.g., GPA, test scores, etc.). After you have made it through the first round of competition, you want to be sure that your recommendation letters put you above the competition and allow your application to shine.

Preparation is the key to a successful graduate school application. As a result, doing your research on the programs you are applying to and compiling the information in an easily accessible manner is the first step in requesting recommendation letters.

After looking at the individual school’s requirements, you may want to consider providing each of your recommenders with the following information:

  • Cover letter
    • Highlight your academic life and successes
    • Provide details relating to the information you would like the writer to address in her/his letter
  • Resume
  • Transcript(s)
  • Personal statement or statement of purpose
  • Organized copies of any forms the recommender will have to complete along with their letter

Whom to Ask
If you are given the option to submit both academic and professional references, you may want to submit one of each. Doing so will allow your recommenders to write about your different skills and create letters that can complement each other rather than repeat information. The @WashULaw program allows both professional and academic recommendations.

Time Frame
Many graduate programs make admissions decisions on a rolling basis and as a result, you want to submit your completed application as soon as possible.

Considering the professional and personal obligations of your recommenders, requesting that they complete a letter in three weeks is reasonable. Anything shorter than that will put your recommender on a tight deadline, which may result in a poorly written recommendation letter.

Approaching a Professor
While it may feel awkward to approach a professor and ask for a recommendation, we encourage you to make the request in person if you live in the same area. It is often best to send your professors an email to set up a meeting to discuss your academic future and plans for graduate school. During this meeting you can ask for their recommendation and provide them with the information you previously prepared regarding the letters you need. Don’t worry, most professors are eager to see their students succeed and move on to graduate school and will be happy to write your letter. You just need to make it as simple as possible for them since good recommendation letters take time to write.

Approaching a Boss, Mentor or Supervisor
If professional references are also requested, you may want to approach your boss, mentor or supervisor for a letter of recommendation. With these individuals, setting up a meeting is also often the best way to broach the topic. If your recommender is a current employer or supervisor, you will want to be sensitive to how your graduate school plans will affect your employment. If you plan to remain at your current employment after obtaining a graduate degree, make sure to stress that to your supervisor or mentor. You may wish to highlight ways your additional training will further the goals of the organization.

Providing a friendly reminder email a week or so before the deadline you discussed with your recommender is appropriate and often helpful. If your recommender fails to get the letter to your schools by the deadline, another friendly email or phone call would be appropriate. Just keep in mind that your recommenders are doing you a favor, so be kind and polite.

After your recommender sends the letters, send them a nice thank you card. Recognize the work they put in on your behalf.

With a little advance planning and the right approach, you can easily get stellar recommendation letters from your professors or employers. Remember, recommendation letters, no matter the reason, can go a long way in helping you achieve your goals. Let your application shine.