Letters of Recommendation
Potential employers, scholarship and grant selection committees, and graduate school admissions offices depend heavily on letters of recommendation to gain insight into applicants' personal strengths, weaknesses and accomplishments. This kind of information cannot be readily gleaned from transcripts and test scores. So it is in your best interest to help your recommenders write the most accurate detailed letters possible.
Strong letters of recommendation communicate what makes you a distinct and special student. While applicants may share certain interests, grades and activities, your letters of recommendation can differentiate you from other candidates with similar profiles.
Reference letters should discuss your academic ability and potential, but they should also shed light on your character and personality. They should illuminate what drives you and what experiences have shaped who you are today. Admissions officers want to get a holistic sense of what kind of person would arrive at their campus and how they would contribute in and out of the classroom.
The best recommendations highlight your key characteristics and demonstrate those Pre-Health Professions Competencies
through specific anecdotes and observations. Those reading the letters should get the sense that the recommender was excited to write about you and inspired to help you on your career path.
Finally, the strongest letters are eloquent and well-crafted. They show that your recommender took the time and thought to develop a powerful statement of support. They add something unique and interesting to your application and catch the eyes of admissions officers, many of whom read through hundreds or even thousands of applications.
Begin cultivating close working relationships with faculty early in your undergraduate career. Once you're acquainted with faculty members through coursework, research, and other ways, consider stopping by their offices once in a while to discuss your interests and keep in touch. When the time comes, you need not feel shy about requesting a recommendation. All faculty member and graduate students had the same service done for them in the past and they regard this as a familiar process.
How to Ask for a Letter of Recommendation
2 months before the letter of recommendation is needed
Decide which individual(s) might write you the best letters. Many students wonder whether to ask a "big name" professor who knows only their face and final grade or a lesser-known professor who knows them better. Letters by famous people or well-known scholar only carry more weight if the famous person knows you well and can write a substantial, convincing recommendation. The more detailed, personalized a letter is, the more likely it is to make a strong impression on a selection committee. So ask your instructors or supervisors with the most extensive, personal knowledge of you and your work.
- Have I done well in this professor's course?
- Does this profession know me outside of class? (i.e. office hours, advising, etc.)
- Has this professor seen my recent work?
5-6 weeks before the letter of recommendations is needed
Approach the individuals you would like to ask. Make sure to give your references at least one month (4-weeks) before your earliest deadline to complete and send your letters. Many professors like to write recommendations during the summer when they have fewer classes to teach. Remember, some professors will be writing whole stacks of letters, which takes time. They will do a better job on your letter if they don't have to rush.
Begin your request with a conversation about your interests and goals and then ask if they can write a strong letter of recommendation. Most likely they will say yes. However, in some cases the faculty member may say no or that they can only write a recommendation citing certain qualifiers or weaknesses. In this case, you should accept their judgement graciously and consider asking for more feedback about your goals and plan for study.
"I need a letter of recommendation for my [graduate school] application - would you be willing to write a strong, positive letter of recommendation for me?"
- Ask them in-person or via personal email
- If this is a professor you haven't worked closely with, remind them of which of their classes you've taken and why would value their recommendation
- Tell them which programs you are considering applying to and the general due date of the letter
1 month before the letter of recommendation is needed
Talk with the individual to discuss your specific plans and let them know when you will need the letter sent on your behalf. Provide your letter writer with additional information to help then craft their recommendation. The following items will help them write accurate and purposeful letters:
- Resume/CV (if you have one)
- A copy or draft of your application essays or a summary of your career and educational goals
- Mention any relevant accomplishments you are proud of or challenges you have overcome
- A list of your activities (research, organizations, leadership, volunteer positions, etc.)
- A personal statement that you will be sending with your application - even a draft will work!
- A copy of your transcript or your GPA
- Request Form (if necessary)
- Submission instructions
- There should be no question as to when and where to submit the finished letters. Provide you recommender with the necessary deadline for submitting their reference and let them know how to submit their recommendation (i.e. through a portal or link, via email to an admissions office, or via snail mail - in this case, provide them with a pre-addressed, pre-stamped envelope.)
1 week before the letter of recommendation is due
If you have not been in communication with the individual since they agreed to write the letter, send them a short, friendly reminder (optional)
After the letter of recommendation has been submitted
- Thank your letter writers!
- Give your recommender updates about the progress of your applications
*If you change your mind and no longer need the letter of recommendation, tell them immediately. Don't be afraid to let them know, and to ask if they will hold onto that recommendation to use if you plan to apply to programs in the future.*
- When possible, waive your right to view recommendation letters on your application forms. Admissions officers will trust them more if you haven't seen them.
- If your letter writer has never composed a letter of recommendation, please encourage them to check out our Advisors Toolkit and review the Letter Writer Toolbox for additional guidance
- Be professional is all your correspondence with professors and supervisors. Properly address and sign all emails, respond promptly to any questions asked, and be polite.