Letters of Recommendation

Recommendation letters indicate to the admissions committee that individuals who know you think you will be successful in graduate school.  They also validate some of the things that you declare in your CV and in your “Statement of Purpose” essay.  Often a selection committee will use the numeric information (GPA, GRE) to rank the applicant pool.  Then they look at a group of the highly ranked candidates and eliminate from further consideration any candidate who does not fit well with their program (based the Personal Statement Essays).  Final decisions often come down to looking at recommendation letters for the most convincing endorsements.

It is common practice to waive your right to review the letters.  The US Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974 (FERPA) gives enrolled students the right to view the contents of their application files. By waiving this right, your references are likely to be more candid in their statements about you.  Some references may refuse to submit a letter when they learn that its confidentiality is not guaranteed.

Once you have been accepted into a program, as a courtesy you should send thank you letters to people who wrote you recommendation letters or helped you in the application process.

Who to Ask

Usually you will need three recommendations.  For the reason mentioned above, give careful consideration to the individuals you ask to write your recommendation letters.  Ask professors, current or past supervisors, advisors, or other people who know you and your work well.   Academic references usually carry the most weight, and most faculty have experience writing these types of letters.  Your references will need to support their comments with specific examples of your performance as an undergraduate.  It is better to ask someone that can offer facts to support a strong recommendation than someone with a prestigious title that can only give you a modest and weakly supported recommendation.

When and How to Ask

Most schools have incorporated collecting letters of recommendation in the online application process.  You will enter the names and email addresses of your references into the system at some point during the application process.  Your references will be provided login information and invited to enter or upload their letters.  They are usually also asked a few questions such as their relationship to you, how long they have observed your work, and how they would compare your work to your peers.  It is best to give your references at least three weeks to complete their letter.

Ideally you will have cultivated professional relationships with the individuals that you intend to ask.  Email them and request a meeting to discuss your graduate school plans.  Ask if they would feel comfortable recommending you for graduate school.  If their response is encouraging, or better yet enthusiastic, ask them if they would be willing to write a letter of recommendation.  If their response is reserved, thank them for their candid response and consider asking another individual.

Steps that Can Lead to Stronger Recommendations

Help your references by providing them the information that they will need to complete a strong letter as efficiently as possible.  Provide them with a copy of your statement of purpose and CV/resume.  It is also very helpful to provide a summary of each program to which you are applying. Include the application deadline, the type of research your will be doing, any required qualifications of the program, and why it appeals to you. Remind them of specific things about your performance or preparation for graduate school that they may have forgotten but you hope they will include in their recommendation.