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by Kaitlin McManus | February 19, 2019


Envelopes and Stamps

I don’t know about you, but the idea of asking people for letters of recommendation makes my palms sweat. Asking for favors can already be uncomfortable, and asking someone to write a letter talking about how amazing you are is—in any context besides a letter of recommendation—about as self-absorbed as one can be. But, letters of recommendation are a normal part of applying to schools, jobs, and other organizations—and can be absolutely crucial in a grad school application So if you’re not good at asking for favors, my philosophy is, “get good.” It’s also an ideal motto for grad school, if you’re looking for one. Here, I’ll walk you through the essential steps of getting a stellar letter of recommendation so admissions can see the very best of you as a candidate.

1. Choose Wisely

First, you need to decide who to ask for a letter of recommendation—take a look at your desired programs’ requirements. Do you need two letters, three, more? Should they be from professors, employers, or both? Different programs will often have different requirements, so be sure to make a note of them. As for whom you should approach, think about the people with whom you share a connection: mentors, advisors, confidantes, etc. Was there someone you worked with that inspired you to pursue your graduate degree? That would be an excellent person to approach. Another ideal option is a professor with whom you built a rapport in school.

Pro tip: Even if you happen to work with them, your family shouldn’t be writing your letters of recommendation. Approach those with whom you share a mutual respect, who can relate your best qualities.

2. Show Off Your Resume

While you share a connection with the people you approach to write your rec letter, they probably can’t recite all of your accomplishments. So when you ask—which you should do in person, if possible—and they agree, provide them with a copy of your resume or CV. It makes it easier for someone to discuss your merits when they have something concrete to point to. They may know that you have excellent writing skills, for example, but it will be easier for them to convey that point if they can mention that you had an op-ed published somewhere last year. Providing a resume will allow your champions to fully convey what a great candidate you are.

3. Give Ample Time

Nothing strikes dread into a professor’s heart quite like the phrase, “I need it by tomorrow.” When soliciting letters of recommendation, make sure you approach people as soon as possible. Two weeks is the absolute bare minimum that you need to give someone—I prefer to give people a month, if possible. For one thing, it gives them the opportunity to carve some time out for the project. And for another, it gives you the chance to send a gentle reminder at the two-weeks-before mark without seeming like a nag. Of course, things happen, but you should be doing your absolute best to give people as much time as you can.

4. Don’t Peek

Admissions offices will often ask if you’d like to waive your right to view your letters of recommendation. It’s pretty widely agreed-upon that you should waive that right. If you don’t, the admissions office will assume that you reviewed the letters and, correctly or not, that you might have had some “editorial input” on the content—thus affecting the integrity of the recommendation. The people writing your letters of recommendation are, ideally, ones that you trust to highlight your best qualities in an enthusiastic way. I think you’re better off just trusting those people and not reviewing their work.

5. Send a Thank-You Note

I am always here for the thank-you note. When your letters of recommendation heroes let you know that they’ve sent them off, make sure you send them a note to say thank you—a real note, not just a text with the thumbs-up emoji. Someone came through on a favor you asked—an inconvenient favor, as letters of recommendation almost always are—so it’s important to show your gratitude. I know someone who sent their recommendation-letter writers a pound of coffee apiece to say thank you, and the gesture went over very well. Whatever you do, make sure they know that their hard work is appreciated.