It can be difficult to get your application noticed when trying to get into a very competitive grad school program. After all, the more competition there is, the higher the chances your application gets lost in the mix. Luckily, you can avoid this by doing a few things that can help your application stand out.
One of the best things you can do to make your application more interesting is to put together a great admissions essay. Another thing, of course, is to include a couple of really good letters of recommendation from your mentors or professors.
But just how do you get letters of recommendation for graduate school?
Getting a letter of recommendation is easy enough — all you have to do is ask for one. However, there are a few things to remember and a few things you can do to raise your chances of getting a glowing recommendation that can help you get accepted into your grad program of choice.
Here’s everything you need to know about how to ask a professor for a letter of recommendation for grad school!
What’s a Grad School Letter of Recommendation and Why Do You Need One?
At this point, you most likely already know what a letter of recommendation is. You most likely needed recommendation letters to apply for undergrad school, after all. Recommendation letters are typically the same whether you need them to apply for undergrad or graduate studies.
Recommendation letters are documents that a reference writes. Your reference can be professional (i.e., your employers, former bosses, former research partners, etc.) or academic (your professors or adviser). The letters are meant to help verify your character traits, skills, and personal attitude, as well as your suitability for your desired program or role.
These letters are also helpful in other ways — sometimes, you will be asked for a letter of recommendation when applying for financial aid or scholarships and grants. Recommendation letters may also help you gain employment as a research assistant or a teacher’s assistant at your grad school of choice.
Unless the program you’re applying for specifies otherwise, you don’t necessarily have to do anything special when submitting your letters of recommendation. They’re often simply included in your application packet when you send everything in (just remember to complete your application by the deadline!).
How to Ask a Professor for a Letter of Recommendation for Grad School
Even if you’ve already asked for letters of recommendation in the past, it usually doesn’t get any less nerve-wracking the second time around. If you’re still wondering how to ask a professor for a recommendation letter, we’ve broken everything down into simple steps that you can follow.
Build a Rapport with Your Professors
If you’re still in the planning phase of applying for grad school, now is the time to begin building a rapport with your professors. Show them your work ethic, leadership skills, and other qualities like punctuality, assertiveness, and efficiency.
Building professional relationships and making positive impressions from the get-go is important, as this sets you up for an easier time when the time you need to ask for recommendation letters comes.
Decide Who You Want to Ask for a Letter of Recommendation
One of the first things you’ll have to do is decide who you want to ask for a letter of recommendation.
Although you can pretty much ask anyone, you’ll want to ask professors with whom you’ve built a professional relationship. There’s no point asking someone who doesn’t know you well enough to be able to write about how suitable you are for the program you’re trying to get into.
It’s a good idea to ask professors who have made an impact on you and from whom you’ve gained inspiration or significant knowledge and skills.
That said, here are a few questions you might want to consider when deciding who to ask:
- How well do they know me? Ask yourself how well your professors know you. Have you ever interacted with these professors outside of class? Have you built any sort of professional relationship with them, and are they aware of your work ethic? How well do they know your goals and career aspirations? When considering a professor to ask, remember that you should want someone who can accurately represent your suitability for the program you’re applying for.
- Would this referrer be relevant to the program I’m looking to get into? Just because you’ve built a good rapport with a certain professor doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll be the best referrer you can get. It’s also important to make sure that the professor teaches a subject relevant to what you’re applying for. It’s a good idea to consider a potential referrer’s credibility before asking them for a letter.
Choose a few professors you would like to ask. You’ll often need two to three letters of recommendation with your grad school applications (depending on the application guidelines), so it’s a good idea to have at least five or six professors you may want to ask. Having five or six professors lined up allows you to have a fallback just in case your initial choices say no.
Make Your Formal Request
Once you’ve decided who to ask, it’s time to make your formal requests. Formal requests usually come in the form of a written letter. However, it’s not considered good etiquette to simply send your request letter to your potential referrers. It’s a good idea to try to schedule meetings with your chosen references so that you can ask them in person if they’d be willing to write a recommendation letter for you.
If it’s not possible to do an in-person meeting, you can ask them via e-mail or over the phone instead. If they agree, then you can follow up with more details and send your formal written request.
The formal written request for recommendation helps maintain professional courtesy while also providing your references with the information they need to compose your recommendation.
Ensure You Ask Early Enough to Provide Them Ample Time to Write
When you make your request, make sure you let your references know when you would appreciate the letters of recommendation. Set a date that’s a few weeks (or even a month or so) ahead of your application deadlines. This gives a buffer in case they get too busy and give you your recommendation letters late.
It’s also important to remember that you should be asking your references early enough to provide them ample time to write. Don’t ask a few days before you want the letter — aim to send your formal request as early as a month ahead or more, depending on how busy you know they are. This way, you aren’t putting your references in a bind, and they’ll have a chance to compose a recommendation letter that accurately represents you.
Don’t Force It
When you apply for grad school, you want to be able to send the strongest application possible. This means you want the best possible recommendation letters that can positively represent your suitability for the program. Anything less than a glowing recommendation may potentially harm your chances of admission. Because of this, if anyone you ask for a recommendation says no, thank them and move on to the next one on your list.
Make Sure You Have Provided Them Relevant Information
Part of getting a great recommendation letter is providing your references with the relevant information they need. The more they know about you, the better they can compose a great letter.
Remember to provide information about the programs and grad schools you’re applying for. Don’t forget to tell your recommenders if there are multiple!
Here are a few bits of info you might want to give your recommenders when you send them your formal written request. You don’t have to send all of them, only the relevant information you know will help them best.
- Why you chose to ask them, and what you have learned from them – It may be a good idea to inform your recommenders of why you decided to ask them. This isn’t the time to pointlessly flatter them — aim to tell them what you’ve learned from them or gained from their guidance. Tell them if they’ve inspired you to seek an advanced degree in the field.
- Academic interests, goals, career aspirations – If they don’t already know, you might want to tell your references about your academic interests, plans, and career aspirations. This tells them about your commitment to the graduate programs you’re looking to get into.
- Copy of your CV or resume and your transcript – Send your recommenders a copy of your transcript and your resume or CV to inform them about your academic performance. Your CV/resume also tells them about any relevant experience you may have had in the field.
- Awards and honors received – Although awards and honors are often included in CVs and resumes, you may still want to mention any awards and recognition you’ve received through your education and career.
- Copies of admissions essays – Sending copies of your admissions essays is optional, but doing so may help your references compose their letters of recommendation more easily.
- Abstracts/titles of past research work and documentation – If you have any, it may be a good idea to send your recommenders the titles and abstracts of your past research work. This shows relevant knowledge and research experience in the field you’re going for.
- Any volunteer experience – Often, educational institutions and institutions that provide scholarships and grants view past volunteerism positively. If you’ve done some volunteering and charity-related work in the past, it may benefit you to inform your references about it.
When you send your formal written request for a recommendation to your references, you may also want to send them a pre-addressed envelope (including proper postage).
Waiving Your Rights to View Recommendation Letters
Some grad school applications may ask you whether you want to waive your rights to view letters of recommendation. Waiving your rights means that you won’t see or access any recommendation letters you send in with your application. It’s often recommended to waive these rights so that your references can compose their letters without any bias. Knowing you won’t be able to see these letters allows them to be transparent in their compositions.
It’s up to you whether you want to waive your rights or not, but you should know that some educational institutions may disregard any letters of recommendation if you don’t. Some potential recommenders may also refuse to write you a recommendation if you haven’t waived these rights.
Write Thank-You Letters
Once all is said and done, you may want to write a quick thank-you letter to your recommenders. Doing this is an act of courtesy to thank someone who took time out of their busy schedule to write you a recommendation.
Another benefit is it may help you stand out and be memorable to the recommender. This may make it easier to ask them for another recommendation letter if you ever need it in the future.
You’re Done! But Don’t Hound Your Recommenders
That’s all there is to it — you’ve learned just about all there is to know about asking professors for letters of recommendation. If you’ve made sure to give them ample time to write your letters, you should be good to go by the application deadlines.
If you feel like you need to remind your references about a deadline coming up, be sure to send a gentle reminder. Don’t hound them, as this may negatively affect the letters they write for you!
If you’re looking to improve your application while you wait for your references to send their letters of recommendation, you may want to read this guide on how to write the best personal statement for graduate school.