If you are considering grad school, you will need reference letters. For graduate schools, these letters of recommendation are a vital part of the application package that helps admissions understand a student. But more, letters of recommendation often provide insight into an applicant’s potential in graduate-level study.
When you are planning for your graduate school references, there are a few things to consider:
Think about your audience. Grad school admissions committees are generally faculty in the department for which you are applying. Make sure you understand who the faculty are, what they consider a priority, and who in your orbit can effectively speak to those priorities.
Also, think about which of your faculty know you well enough to thoughtfully advocate for you.
With these factors in mind, here are 11 tips to position you to get the strongest grad school reference letters.
Excellent grad school recommendations come from strong relationships with faculty. These are not often relationships that can be forged over the course of a semester. So start the relationship-building process early in your academic career. There are many ways to do this, but here are several sure-fire ways to help.
Attending office hours is the best way to get to know your faculty and for them to get to know you. Every course instructor will list their office hours on their syllabi. Stop in with questions, and drop in to chat about course material or research. Those informal conversations can be great for getting grad school references from your professors.
Once you have gone to office hours and met your professors, it pays to cultivate those relationships. You may only have one or two classes with your most influential profs, so staying in touch is highly recommended. When it comes to who to get letters of recommendation from for grad school, remember that (generally speaking) a letter of rec from a TA means less than a letter from the professor. Know the difference. But that said, a letter from an instructor who knows you well is ALWAYS better than one from someone who you barely know.
Consider this advice from Harvard Law School: “We like to emphasize ‘substance over signature.’ The name at the bottom of the page means much less than the content of the letter.” They go on to say that the best information about you is: most clearly communicated by someone with whom you’ve been working closely, rather than someone who may have a more “impressive” title, but with whom you’ve had less direct contact. Select a recommender who knows you well and can paint the most illustrative picture of the strengths of your candidacy.
This is a best practice for grad school reference with applications beyond grad school letters of recommendation.
Great relationships are only part of the equation. You will need to produce high-quality work consistently to earn excellent grad school references. For most grad school recommenders, this will include (at least):
We strongly recommend frequent visits to your school’s writing center and getting to know the tools that can help with your research (reference management tools like Petal can be a great asset).
If you plan to go to graduate school, then it is your responsibility to understand the field you’ll be entering. Nobody expects you to be an expert in the area (that will come later), but make sure that YOU understand the trends in the field. This knowledge helps you select the best graduate programs and ensure that your grad school references can speak to the parts that interest you; a significant component of understanding your audience (as we mentioned above).
The better you know where you are heading, the more prepared you are to:
While the advice from Harvard Law that we discussed earlier is solid, there is something to be said about grad school references from scholars considered heavyweights in your area of study. If you can solicit letters from highly respected professors, this may bump your application towards the top.
A solid and persuasive grad school letter of recommendation is always preferable to something less passionate. Harvard Law School explains, “It is quite obvious to us when a recommender knows a student only through the resume they passed along to them, and they are often not shy about telling us explicitly if they don’t know the candidate well.” The Harvard Graduate School of Education suggests that candidates “identify potential letter writers who would be able to make a strong case for you to pursue graduate study.”
You identified your recommenders and cultivated the type of relationships that yield great grad school recommendations. You thought about weight and depth. Now it’s time for the last step in getting your letters of recommendation for graduate school. You need to ask for a reference. The grad school you are applying to will dictate the number of references they require (it’s often three, but it does vary). It’s also a good idea to have your resume available to share with each reference letter writer so they can accurately talk about your accomplishments.
Not all of your references will know you in the same ways. Some will be better situated to speak to one element of your application (your research prowess, for example) and others to speak to different elements (like your history of service to the field or your school). Have a list of personal qualities ready, and let your recommenders know what you would like them to address. Some will ask, others may not, but this guidance will help them craft your grad school reference letter.
Your recommenders need to understand why you are interested in applying to the program to make a convincing argument on your behalf. Be clear about the particular merits of the program and school you are interested in and how your background and interests align. Sharing this knowledge will help your references understand how to steer your grad school letter.
Each graduate school has different procedures for submitting letters of recommendation. Some will want your professors to upload them to their web portal, and others will want them submitted through Interfolio or a similar dossier service. Still, other grad schools desire hard copied letters of recommendation mailed to a specific address. Ensure that YOU know how the recommenders should submit and provide them with clear instructions.
Most graduate schools will give you the option to waive your right to access your letters of recommendation. Waiving this right encourages your grad school references to speak more candidly. Although preferred, it is not a requirement. Discuss this with your recommenders.
Your professors are busy. They are doing research, serving on committees, and teaching or leading labs. Writing letters of recommendation takes time. Ask for your letters as early as possible.
Don't be shy about sending reminders once you’ve asked for your letters. Your faculty is busy, and those reminders are almost always welcome.
Getting your reference letters for grad school applications can seem intimidating. Following these 11 tips can take the pressure off and ensure you receive the grad school recommendations you deserve.
Petal wishes you the best of luck on your grad school applications. We want to be your research partner now, and into your continued academic and research career.