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Letters of Recommendation

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Have you ever asked an expert or another person you trust for advice? We all want targeted information from people we trust concerning things we care about, and graduate admissions officers are no different in this desire. 

The basic mechanics of getting a letter of recommendation are fairly straightforward: you ask a letter writer, they agree and write their letter, and then they confidentially submit this letter to the appropriate graduate programs of interest, usually electronically.

On this page, we break this process down to explore the important steps for success.

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Timing of Requests

Typically, the best time to ask someone for a letter of recommendation is at least three months before you need it. Professors and industry professionals are busy, oftentimes much busier than you would otherwise guess.

When you initially ask for a letter of recommendation, you are asking a person if they would be willing to write you a letter. You are not asking for the letter to be written at that moment. As such, it is a good practice to ask your potential letter writers if they would be comfortable writing you a letter as soon as you know it will be needed at some point in your future. 

In certain instances, you may have to request a letter of recommendation on shorter notice than what is advisable. When this occurs, be as considerate as possible of your letter writer’s time. Asking for a letter two weeks before it is due may diminish the quality of your relationship, the letter, and the letter writing experience; we recommend acknowledging your short timeline in your initial request and apologizing in advance for any inconvenience that this could cause.

PRO TIP

Plan in advance when asking for letters of recommendation. For example, you may be taking a course with a professor during your junior year and know by the end of the course that you would like that professor to write you a letter. While you may not actually be applying to any programs for six months or more, it would still be best for you to make your initial request after that course has ended.

Number of Letters to Request

Most commonly, graduate applications require at least three letters of recommendation. Sometimes this number is slightly higher, sometimes lower, but three letters is the most common requirement you will see. Typically, the most you could submit would be five or six.

Did You Know?

If you have the option to submit more than three letters,
more isn’t always better.

Make sure every letter that you submit is strong.

Three strong letters and two weak ones is often seen as weaker than three strong letters alone. Choose your letter writers wisely, based on who you think will write you the strongest letter.

Content of Strong Letters

As the person being written about, you will not need to worry too much about the content of the letters. This is ultimately up to the letter writers, and it will be their discretion that you trust. Nevertheless, the letters should focus on aspects of you (e.g., your achievements, personality, and ambitions) that mark you for success in your field. 

Occasionally, you may have a letter writer who asks you what they should focus on in their letter; this is when you should identify and articulate what that specific writer can best cover in their letter that may not be covered in your other letters.

 

“Gap Year” Considerations

If you are in a “gap year” or you are an alum, the same principles and timing guidelines apply when you need to request a letter from someone. It is always best to make your initial request when the relationship is still fresh, even if you do not yet know the exact programs to which you will be applying. 

Remember, your initial request is simply a request to write a letter in the future. It is not meant to finalize the entire transaction. You should follow up with your letter writers every six months or so with an update on your life and your graduate school plans; you will feel more comfortable making your final request if you have been keeping in touch with all of your writers. This can be especially true if you have been out of school for quite some time.

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