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How to Get a Recommendation Letter for Graduate School


Ipswich, Waterfront, Ipswich Campus, The Big Question Mark Sculpture / Martin Pettitt

The letter of recommendation is the part of the graduate school application that students stress most over. As with all elements of the application process, your first step is to be sure that you understand what you’re asking for.

A letter of recommendation is a letter written on your behalf, typically from a faculty member, that recommends you as a good candidate for graduate study. All graduate admissions committees require that letters of recommendation accompany students’ applications. Most require three. How do you do about getting a letter of recommendation, specifically, a good letter of recommendation?


Difficulty: Average

Time Required: 6 months - years

Here's How:

  1. Learn about letters of recommendation– from what they are to who will write them for you - early in your college career – early in your college career, well before it is time to apply to graduate school.
  2. Seek experiences that will help you develop relationships with faculty that will get you excellent letters.
  3. Understand that admissions committees seek letters from specific types of professionals
  4. Learn about what you can do if you are a nontraditional student or one who seeks entry to graduate school several years after graduating from college.
  5. Carefully choose recommenders. Learn about what qualities to look for in referees.
  6. Approach your referees carefully. Ask for letters appropriately and respectfully. Pay attention to what not to do.
  7. Give referees time. Demonstrate respect for your letter writer's time by providing him or her with plenty of advance notice. At least a month is preferable (more is better). Less than two weeks is unacceptable (and will likely be met with a "No").
  8. Provide referees with the info they need to write a stellar letter.
  9. Waive your rights. No, not in a court of law. Waive your rights to see the letter. Most recommendation forms have a box to check and sign to indicate whether you waive or retain your rights to see the letter. Always waive your rights. Many referees will not write a non-confidential letter. Also, admissions committees will give letters more weight when they are confidential under the assumption that faculty will be more candid when the student cannot read the letter.
  10. Follow up. Professors are busy. There are many classes, many students, many meetings, and many letters. Check in periodically to see if the recommendation has been sent or if they need anything else from you. Follow up to ensure that your letter is sent, but don’t make a pest out of yourself. Check with the grad program and contact the prof again if it hasn't been received.
  11. Thank your referees. Writing a letter of recommendation takes careful thought and hard work. Show that you appreciate it with a thank you note.
  12. Report back to your referees. Tell them about the status of your application and definitely tell them when you are accepted. graduate school. They want to know!


  1. Begin thinking about letters of recommendation as soon as you think you'd like to apply to graduate school because developing the relationships that are the foundation of good letters takes time.
  2. Provide referees with all the info they need neatly organized to make their job easier
  3. Give referees lots of time but also check in and remind them. Professors can be absent minded. But be friendly and don't nag.

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