Letters of recommendation complete a graduate school application, and it takes time and preparation for your recommender to write a good one. In this article, I talk about what you can do to get a good letter of recommendation and the general requirements for these letters, including how many to get and whom to ask, which differs depending on the discipline. See my article that focuses on letters of recommendation, or letters of evaluation as they are called, for those who plan on applying to medical school.
Whether you are a student or an employed professional, chances are you will need someone to write a letter of recommendation for you to advance your career goals. A good letter of reference can make you stand out in a pool of candidates and be the finishing touch on a well-crafted application that lands you that dream job or gets you into that perfect graduate program. Here are some guidelines for how to get a strong letter of recommendation.
Whom to ask
The best people to ask for letters of recommendation are those with whom you have established personal relationships early on in your academic or professional career. The strongest letters are the ones that come from people who can say, “I have known this person for x years.” They will be the most credible as well as most able to speak to your aptitudes, abilities, dedication, and work ethic. They will also be able to articulate which personal qualities make you a good candidate by drawing on a range of examples from their many years working with you.
Ideally, you should establish strong relationships with at least half a dozen people who can speak to your academic or professional qualities. The more senior the person, the more the reader will sit up and take note. For example, a well-established professor will make a better impression than a teaching assistant. Similarly, a high-ranking superior will be taken more seriously than a colleague. That’s not to say you shouldn’t use your colleagues and peers – a well-crafted letter by someone who knows you really well will be better than a letter by someone who is high-ranking but knows little about your work. But if you can build solid relationships with those above you, as well as your peers, this will go a long way towards advancing your goals.
How to ask
When you ask for a letter of recommendation, be as specific as possible. Explain what you are applying for, why you believe you are a good fit, and why you feel this person would be best able to recommend you. Also be sure to tell them the date by which the letter must be submitted – they will have to be sure that they have time to write a letter that does you justice. Once the recommender agrees to write on your behalf, four weeks is considered ample time.
You can ask for a letter in a formal email or in person, depending on your proximity to and relationship with the individual.
How to prepare your recommender
Once someone has agreed to be a reference, you need to prepare them for the task. A good strategy is to give the person a memo that describes the job(s) or graduate program(s) to which you are applying and the key skills or attributes of your background that make you well suited for what is described. Other documents you should provide are a resume or CV, any papers published and in press, and copies of academic transcripts. You should also provide parts of the application that you have had to write yourself, such as an essay about your career goals, a personal statement, an introduction to you (autobiographical essay), or a cover letter to an admissions committee. The recommender can write a better letter with more specifics if they have the complete application.
How many letters of recommendation do you need?
Grad schools and programs will specify how many letters of recommendation they require. Below, you will find some general guidelines for graduate programs, law school, business school, and medical school. But be sure to know the specific requirements of each program you plan to send an application. If you are applying to graduate school abroad, you will likely find that they do not require letters of recommendation, though there are some exceptions.
Graduate School (MA, MS, PhD)
Graduate programs generally require two or three letters of recommendation. At least one should be from current or past professors or others in an academic role relevant to the program. The other letter or letters can be from employers, senior colleagues, or academics from other disciplines.
MBA programs require two or three letters of recommendation. They should come from people who have supervised you in the workplace and evaluated your performance. Business schools are more interested in knowing if you can succeed in the workplace than they are about your academic record in college.
Many law schools require two letters of recommendation but accept up to four. Law schools prefer letters of recommendation from academics. If you have been in the workforce for some time, consider submitting two academic letters and two professional letters.
Medical programs require a minimum of four letters of recommendation but accept up to six. Two should be from science or engineering faculty members, one from a humanities or social sciences faculty member, and one to three from a job or internship supervisor, research PI, or mentor/coach.
Doing College provides personalized guidance throughout the graduate and professional degree admissions process, whether you are currently studying at the undergraduate level or are already working in your career. Read past newsletter articles such as “Grad School: Considerations for College Students”, “Grad School: Considerations for Professionals” on my blog. There is an option to subscribe at the bottom of each article.