Graduate Admissions letters of recommendation

Secure the Best Letters of Recommendation for Grad School

By: Dr. Kristen Willmott

As we dive into the new year, many graduate school applicants are putting the finishing touches on their Master’s, MBA, PhD and law school applications.  In recent years, more and more applicants we’ve worked with have noted that the faculty members and supervisors they’ve asked letters of recommendation for have said yes to the request, but asked for “a pre-written letter” that they’d sign the bottom of.

In some cases, it has been a faculty member who skims the printed letter in the department hallway, and just signs the bottom and says “You’re all set!” In other cases, it’s been a manager who states that the letter of recommendation would be ‘an honor’ to write, only to a few weeks later ask for a letter to be emailed to him that he will then paste onto company letterhead and sign and submit. Neither situation is ideal for a busy graduate school applicant. The goal with the required 2-3 letters of recommendation in any terrific application is to not even see it (not to mention write it) AND have a letter of recommendation submitted that highlights key skills, leadership traits, projects and research opportunities led, and unique qualifications held, ideally in the words of the writer, not the one the letter is about. That said, it’s not something we really urge pushing back on if you ARE told you’ll need to write your own.


So –how do you ensure your request for a letter of recommendation for grad school is not only successful but amounts to a personalized letter that is a true standout from the pack?

You prepare a Recommendation Letter Request Packet.


Your packet can be sent over email or via hard copy in a one-on-one meeting, but ensuring your packet includes some key materials can make the difference between a letter with strong impact in admissions vs. a rushed, run of the mill letter, or even a prompt rejection of your request. Plan to include:

  1. A summary of why you are asking this person for a letter. Highlight their qualifications, your connection, and relay how and why you value their academic/professional expertise. (Can be done in a face to face or phone conversation OR over email, as the case may be.)
  2. A mini summary of why you are applying to graduate school. Why is now the time? Why THAT degree/school list specifically? How do you feel it will boost your professional career? (Can be done in a face to face or phone conversation OR over email, OR even with a finalized version of your Statement of Purpose, which should cover these items anyway.)
  3. Your updated CV or resume. Ensure it relays an accurate, current job description, and is proofed carefully.
  4. A one-page list of bullet points on what you hope will be expanded upon in the letter. This accomplishes two things. 1–It (hopefully) dissuades the writer from kicking the task back to you and asking you to write the letter, and 2–It helps ensure your letter will be more personalized, will relay details on your success in a class, on a massive work project, in a leadership situation, on a presentation to the board, etc.
  5. A file that describes each graduate program to which you are applying AND specific recommendation forms or questionnaires/link (if they are provided by the program) for the recommender to complete (note that the letters need to be specific to each graduate program, if possible). Include the date the app is due, the date you need the letter by, the date you intend to submit, and ideally the date you’ll find out if you’re in.
  6. Optional extra materials: A recent “A” paper from a relevant course if the recommender is your professor or advisor or a summary of a recent work project/publication and feedback you obtained.
  7. Give “an easy out.” Once you provide the above and make it clear that your intention is to make this process as painless as possible for your busy writer, then it’s time to hand over the reins and offer an easy way for the person to flat out say no. It’s to your benefit to give “an easy out” where the person can decline your request for any or no reason. If a writer is on the fence, or feels strapped for time and might not meet the deadlines you have, or feels he or she does not know you or your work well enough, it’s not going to amount to the stellar letter of recommendation you’ll need to be an asset to your application. WAY better to know that at the time of the “ask” as opposed to six weeks down the road or, even worse, at the time of rejection when your application was marked incomplete.

With the above 7 items in your Recommendation Letter Request Packet, you are MUCH more likely to secure a letter in which your professor or supervisor notes you are the best student he has worked with in decades, that he enthusiastically supports your M.S. application to MIT, that you will be a true asset to the degree program in X, Y and Z concrete ways, etc. Need help prepping your Recommendation Letter Request Packet? We offer that!


And lastly, close the circle: Follow up with an old-school handwritten and mailed or hand-delivered thank you note to all of your recommenders! Writing a letter of recommendation is a lot of work and it’s a personal favor to you, so send a thank you note. Also, when you hear back from graduate programs, send an email to your recommenders to let them know where you will be attending (and when/if you’re moving), when you start, and thank them for their much-appreciated help in your gaining acceptance to the program. They will appreciate knowing the end result of their letters and hearing about your success in graduate admissions, and in your program once you start.

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