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Frequently Asked Questions

Letters of Recommendation FAQ

How important are letters of recommendation?

Letters of recommendation are required for almost every graduate school application and are a very important part of the application process. Usually grades and test scores factor in most heavily; however, your letters of recommendation could be the deciding factor in the admission process.

How many letters of recommendation do I need?

Although it can vary, generally, you will be asked for three letters. We recommend that you send only the number of letters requested. Admissions committees do not have enough time to read extra credentials for every applicant.

Whom should I ask for letters of recommendation?

The best letter writers are those that know you well and can provide an evaluation of your ability to perform and succeed at the graduate level. Those who work in graduate and professional school admissions look for the following:

Someone who knows you well
Someone who is a professor at your school that you have had for class
Someone who has earned the degree which you are seeking in your graduate work
Someone who has supervised you in a job or internship

Note: Letters from family friends, political figures, and the like are highly discouraged

How do I approach letter writers?

First, make a list of professors and/or supervisors who will be your best advocates. Then, set up an appointment to discuss your request either in person or virtually. Try not to make the request via email if possible. Be prepared to articulate your interest and reasons for attending graduate school.

Letters of recommendation are written strictly on a voluntary basis. The best approach is to ask potential letter writers if they are willing to write you a strong letter. If you sense reluctance or the answer is no, ask someone else.

How do I go about getting good letters of recommendation?

Since your best letters will come from those who know you well, make an effort to get to know your professors and/or supervisors. A few ways you can do this are to speak up in class, select courses with small class sizes, take more than one class from a professor, do research for a professor, take on optional projects, and regularly attend office hours.

The best strategy you can use to get a good letter of recommendation, particularly if a professor hasn't known you long, is to provide your letter writer with ample information about you. This way, you will get a letter that includes concrete details about you instead of a letter that contains only your grade, which is of limited value.

The letter writer should make it clear how they know you and how well. The writer should be as specific as possible about your relevant academic skills and personal traits. The more detailed a letter, the more it reflects the writer's direct knowledge of your work and potential and the more credible it will appear to members of the admissions committee.

If you ask a faculty member or supervisor to write you a letter, they may not feel comfortable saying "no" even if they don't feel able to write a strong endorsement. Give them another option. Rather than asking if they'd write you a letter, you can ask if they feel they know you and your work well enough to write a good letter. This allows them a graceful out and saves you from having a letter with faint praise.

When should I approach letter writers?

Professors and supervisors are generally pleased to write on your behalf, however, they are usually involved in many activities. Faculty are especially busy during the semesters. Be considerate of your letter writers’ time and approach them at least one to two months before you need the letter.

What information do my letter writers need to write good letters?

You can help your letter writers by providing them with some/any of the following:

Information on how to get in touch with you in case they need to reach you
Your Resume/CV
What you would like emphasized in the letter(s)
Links to forms or information on where they can submit the letters
Due dates for the letters with the earliest due date at the top
A list of schools to which you are applying
A draft of your personal statement
Any other relevant information

Do graduate schools care if letters are confidential or not?

In general, graduate programs prefer confidential letters. Admissions officials say that it displays more confidence on the part of the applicant if letters are "confidential" (meaning that you cannot see or read the letters).


Should I wait to submit my application until all letters of recommendations are complete?

No. Submit your application as soon as you have completed it. The letters of recommendation will become a part of your application as they arrive.


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