Published: Aug. 1, 2021

Recommendation letters are a critical piece of your application. A strong letter of recommendation from several (at least three are needed) of your peers is just as important to your graduate school admission as your GMAT or GRE score and undergraduate GPA. Many admission committees look to letters of recommendation for information about you such as your academic accomplishments, work ethic and character to assess whether or not you will be a good fit for their program.

Getting a letter of recommendation doesn't have to be a headache. Follow these simple tips to keep you on track.

1. Who to ask to serve as reference

If you know early on during your undergraduate career that you plan to pursue a graduate degree, start building relationships with your peers, professors and research supervisors. These relationships can serve you well for future recommendation letters. If it’s been a while since you’ve been in college, consider asking professionals who know your character and have a genuine enthusiasm for your future and your success. Supervisors, office managers, anyone who has worked with you and can vouch for your work ethic and performance. Whoever you ask, make sure you ask in an appropriate manner. Always make an appointment to discuss your request and ask early, give them time to complete the request.

2. Materials to provide your selection of referees

In order to receive a good letter of recommendation, be sure to provide your referees all of the materials they will need. Be organized and thorough in your materials. Provide an organized folder with all of the following contents:

  • Transcript(s)

  • Admission essays

  • Research experiences

  • Honor societies to which you belong

  • Awards

  • Resume/work experience

  • List of programs you are applying to

  • Contact information for yourself for questions (email, phone)

  • A list of your goals related to your desired degree

3. What not to do when requesting a letter of recommendation

Now that we’ve covered who to select as referees and what to provide them with to write a good letter of recommendation, let’s go over a few things not to do:

  • Do not request a recommendation letter by email

  • Do not provide your documentation piece meal and don’t delay the referees’ receipt of it

  • Do not ask for a non-confidential letter; admissions committees will give more weight to it if they know it’s a confidential letter under the belief that writers will often be more candid

4. A few last thoughts

Additionally, give your referee plenty of time to write the letter. Schedule an appointment letting the recommender know your intentions so they can consider whether or not they can provide such a letter for you. And when you do ask for their help, ask if they can provide a “helpful letter.” Provide at least 3–4 weeks for each referee to write the letter as professors and professionals are busy. If you haven’t heard on the status around 1 1/2 weeks prior to the deadline, send a friendly reminder. Finally, send your reference a thank you note with the status of your application. They are invested in your success and will want to know how you’re moving forward in the process.