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How to Ask for Recommendation Letters

Friday | October 4, 2019 | by Nana Konadu Owusu

recommendation letters

Recommendation letters play an essential role during the graduate school application process.

Most institutions require you to include at least three letters with your application. Test scores, official transcripts, professional work experience, and extracurricular activities will also affect your outcome. But your letters of recommendation can be deal-breakers. They are especially important when the admissions committee is unable to make a final decision based on the other factors alone.

If your decision came down to just your recommendation letters, would yours be strong enough? Wouldn’t you want to do everything in your power to ensure that they get you into the graduate school of your dreams? This article can help you make the right choices to make that possible.

This article, written by WES Ambassador Nana Konadu Owusu, founder of Education Connect, will elaborate on:

  • Whom to ask for recommendation letters
  • When to ask for recommendation letters
  • How to ask for recommendation letters

Whom to Ask for Recommendation Letters

The main goal of a recommendation letter is to offer a comprehensive and positive evaluation of your ability to excel in graduate school. That is why admissions committees prefer to see letters from professors and college advisers, rather than family members and friends.

The most candid letters are typically written by people who are aware of your proven academic abilities—and those who can offer insights about your potential.

Ideally, they will discuss your leadership skills and best personal traits. They should describe your specific attributes that will help you succeed in the program for which you are applying. For this reason, it can be useful to share information about your program and explain the reasons that it would be meaningful for you to attend. This will give your recommender further information to help support your application.

However, if you have been out of school for long and you are unable to get in touch with former instructors, the best option will be to ask supervisors from your workplace. In this case, it is important that you do not choose someone based on their title or rank, but rather based on how well they know you.

Your recommender should be able to speak specifically and genuinely about your potential to succeed in graduate school. Examples based on your experiences working together are useful. Passionate, convincing statements can also stand out.

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When to Ask for Recommendation Letters

Professors, instructors, and supervisors tend to be busy grading, teaching, and juggling a whole lot of other duties. That is why it is imperative to give them plenty of time if you want them to complete a thorough, thoughtful letter on your behalf.

An ideal amount of time might be about three months before your personal deadline (if they are giving it back to you) or submission due date (if they are sending it directly to the school). This will take the pressure off of them when you make the request, and they will be more likely to agree. It will also give them time to adequately research and prepare an outstanding letter. Plus, they will think highly of you for planning in advance—and this is exactly when you want to be in someone’s good graces!

You can also be confident that you will likely receive a high-quality recommendation letter. Effective planning also means that you will have time to list potential recommenders and approach them one at a time. You will be able to weigh what each person will bring to the table before choosing who to ask. For example, you do not want to ask three people who think highly of your writing skills and leave out the one who is more likely to praise your analytical abilities.

Additionally, in the event that someone turns you down, or fails to meet your deadline, planning ahead means that you might have a back-up option in mind. Due to the fact that each school has different application deadlines, it is important to set personal deadlines. That way, all of your application materials will be ready before the university’s due date—and you will feel calm and prepared.

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How to Ask for Recommendation Letters

Ideally, it is best to ask for a recommendation letter in person. You can make a phone call or send an email as secondary options if there is not a reasonable opportunity to set up a face-to-face meeting (for example, if you no longer live in the same place where you studied).

When requesting a graduate school recommendation letter, prospective students must make their intentions clear about why they are pursuing their program of interest and what they hope to achieve by returning to school.

Remember, this individual is not obligated to say yes—so you have to explain why their recommendation would be meaningful to you and directly impactful to your application. You should convey that their opinion of your character and competency will make a big impact on your future.

If the recommender is a past instructor or supervisor, it helps to reiterate which of their classes you were enrolled in. They have likely taught a large number of students over the years, so even if you had a close relationship in the past, you might want to share some specific memories and details about your time together to help jog their memories. This will prevent your letter from appearing too generic.

However, once someone has agreed, you should send them a follow-up email. This is when you share the more specific, relevant information:

  • The schools and programs you will be applying to
  • The requirements for each letter (if you are asking for more than one)
  • The deadlines for each of those programs
  • How the letter must be sent (for example, if it needs to notarized or sealed a certain way)
  • Any other information the recommender will need to know

You might also want to provide an updated résumé to let your former instructor know what you have accomplished since leaving school. Most importantly, conclude the email by emphasizing the deadline and adding a note of thanks.

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In Conclusion

Your graduate school recommendation letter helps the admissions committee get to know you better.

Although most schools tend to use a holistic approach to determine who will make a good candidate for their programs, the recommendation letter is important because it is the only part of the application that does not come from the applicant.

This makes it a credible source for validating your own summary of your character, as well as helping to confirm the impressions that the committee has formed based on the evidence provided in your overall application.

In some cases, you will have the option to either preview the letter (and send it yourself) or have your referrer send it to the school directly in a sealed envelope. You can show that you are confident about your reputation by waiving your right to view the letter. The admissions office will recognize your positive attitude and infer a strong relationship between you and the person who has sent your letter.

However, this means that you need to be completely confident about the people you choose to write your letter. If you waive your right to view your letter and it is not as strong as you would have hoped, this can hurt you more than seeing it first and declining to include it with your application. Sometimes, it is simply more helpful to read the letter and politely ask someone else if it is not everything you need to bring you closer to your academic goals.

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Nana Konadu Owusu, MSW, is a WES Ambassador. She is the founder of Educational Connect, a website dedicated to helping international students migrate to the U.S.