The Ultimate Guide to Grad School Letters of Recommendation
GRADUATE STUDIES | 5 MIN READ
An application to graduate school should paint a picture of who you are. Much of that illustration comes from you: You’ll be writing your essay and putting together your resume. Test scores and transcripts provide an objective measuring stick. But grad school letters of recommendation round everything out, giving a subjective glimpse of how others see you—your qualities, your competencies and your potential.
Even though you won’t be the one writing these letters, it’s still important to understand how to facilitate the process. You want letters that are accurate, authentic and on time.
What Should a Graduate School Recommendation Letter Include?
Your letters should provide information not found elsewhere in your application. They don’t need to rehash which classes you took or what your GPA is. They shouldn’t repeat the same things you use in your personal essay.
What they should do is validate and expand on the information you are providing. Good letters cover your personal qualities and the accomplishments and experiences that make you stand out from others. They underscore the attributes that make you a match for the program to which you are applying.
Provide your letter writers with a copy of your admission essay and resume so that they are prepared before they start writing. This way, they can bolster your submissions without echoing them.
When Should I Ask for Grad School Recommendations?
A good rule of thumb is to give your letter writers at least a month’s notice. That means asking to meet with them about six weeks in advance.
You’ll want to talk in person, if possible, so that they can ask you questions. Meanwhile, you can get a sense of whether they have any hesitation in recommending you. Don’t take it personally if they do! Some people might feel that they don’t know you well enough to give an accurate review, and others might just be too swamped to add another item to their to-do list.
Asking early enough will give you plenty of time to approach a backup if your first choice doesn’t pan out. It also means your letter won’t be forgotten in the end-of-semester rush.
How Long Should a Recommendation Letter Be for Graduate School?
Always follow the guidance given by the school you are applying to. But, generally speaking, use the same rule of thumb for a letter of recommendation as for a resume: Stick to one page.
Three to four nice paragraphs should suffice, hitting the highlights without bogging the reader down with fluff or hard-to-follow stories.
Basically, your letter writers should very briefly introduce themselves, say how they know you and then make the case for you. Most of the letter should detail why they recommend you for the program, with a couple of broad statements and a few supporting details.
Do Recommendations for Graduate School Have to be From Professors?
Again, first and foremost, follow whatever guidelines the school you’re applying to is providing. Usually, though, of the two or three letters you submit, one or two should know you in an academic setting. For the other(s), you may want to include someone who knows you professionally or from some kind of work that you do.
A professor who knows you well can speak to your academic and career goals—and your strengths in the classroom. A supervisor or work mentor can talk about your experience in the field and your work ethic.
It’s not a good idea to ask a family member to write you a letter unless you truly have an outstanding reason to do it. Just know that most schools will frown on it. Instead, consider someone outside of your family who nevertheless has a personal connection to you and can highlight your character traits, personality and leadership potential.
Can Recommendation Letters be Sent After the Grad School Deadline?
Do everything you can to avoid this. If you request your letters far enough in advance—at least a month, but more time is better—and follow up by providing the information the letter writer will need, you should be in good shape.
Keep on top of your application status. If you see that a letter hasn’t been submitted and the deadline is nearing, send a nice email asking if the writers need any further information from you. If that doesn’t help, follow up with a phone call.
Being selective about who you ask for a letter—and being clear on the deadline—should keep you from white-knuckling it as the due date approaches. Also, if two to three letters are needed and two of yours are submitted, don’t sweat the third one. But in a worst-case scenario, contact your institution, tell them what happened and see what they recommend.
What About the Rest of the Application Process?
Get the support you need to get into grad school and start your journey toward a master’s degree. Elmhurst University’s admission counselors monitor your progress and stay in contact with you to keep your application on track.
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