How to Ask for a Grad School Letter of Recommendation

A young man reading a letter

Graduate school applications are not much different than those for undergraduate programs – they often require standardized test scores, strong transcripts, essays, and of course, letters of recommendations. However, letters of recommendation for graduate school hold more weight, because oftentimes, students will have earned some professional experience before applying to grad school, sometimes several years or more after earning their bachelor’s degree. This is especially true for many selective MEd and MBA programs, but not quite the expectation for medical school or PhD programs. Regardless, letters of recommendation play an important role in building confidence with the admission committee members and assisting you with earning a much-deserved spot in any graduate school program.

This draws several questions, such as: Who do you ask for a grad school letter of recommendation? What information should they include in the letter? How should you go about asking them? We’ll go through these step-by-step to ensure that you’ll be receiving the most impactful letters of recommendation.

Who Should I Ask?

Figuring out who to ask for grad school letters of recommendations depends on the program requirements. Start there – Does the program require a supervisor at work? An undergraduate professor? Someone who oversaw your contributions during a specific collaborative project? Once you identify the requirements, go over your options. If you’re expected to request letters from professors, then it is a must to confirm that you did well in their course. It’s also helpful if they remember you because of the quality of your assignments, your contributions, or any other reasons. The same logic applies to anybody you consider from a professional environment. Do they know you well enough to write a letter of recommendation? Are they aware of your achievements while you held the position? The more they know you, the more detailed their recommendation.

How Should I Ask?

Ideally, you can request a letter of recommendation in person, and once confirmed by the recommender, follow up with a thank-you email. Sometimes, you’re limited to only writing an email to request a recommendation, especially if you were working remotely, or have been moved on since being within proximity to your recommender. When you do write an email, even if you’re following up to thank them for agreeing to write a recommendation, you should always include memorable content to remind them of their role as a supervisor, professor, or colleague. For example, your email should not read like a basic template, it should be specific. Writing “Thanks for being the best manager and agreeing to write this letter” compared to “Thanks for your helpful advice during our mobile application project, and your overall guidance during my two years at X Company. Your leadership and willingness to communicate with me has significantly contributed to my development as a software engineer and team member, building the patience and confidence to take-on urgent issues through your methods.” Recommenders are often a strong influence in helping candidates decide on a graduate degree program, so be sure to clarify their role in encouraging you to pursue grad school.

How Soon Should I Ask?

Since this is an important part of your graduate school application, you want to give your recommender as much time as possible to write the letter. Do your research early on deciding which program and schools you want to apply to, put them into a spreadsheet with the early deadlines shown in another column. Keep in mind that you don’t want to submit your materials on the last day, it’s much better to send them earlier. Then, think about giving your recommender at least three weeks to write the letter. It’s not guaranteed, but many recommenders are willing to share their letters with you before sending it to the graduate school.

What Should the Letter of Recommendation Include?

You want the letter of recommendation to be as personal as possible, so make sure to include some helpful reminders in your email request (or “thank you email”) such as times you’ve worked together, challenges you’ve overcome, accomplishments, and more. A portion of the letter should also include your short or long-term goals from the perspective of the recommender. Although this information may also be in your personal statement, it helps the committee members in knowing that you’ve also discussed your plans and commitment with your recommender. Since you’re going to include a resume with your graduate school application that will be reviewed anyway, it’s not pivotal to share it with the recommender as they may repeat some of your bullet points. However, it could also help them if they run into writer’s block while working on your letter of recommendation, so include the resume as an attachment just in case. For pursuing PhD programs, it’s very helpful to include a CV, if applicable.

Final Thoughts

There you have it! Following these steps will ensure that you will identify the right people to ask, put together a respectful process to gain their commitment, and provide your recommenders with enough time to write the letter of recommendation. Knowing that this is a very personal letter, take your own time on writing the email and reminding them of those times you’ve spent together, overcoming challenges, and growing as individuals. By following these suggestions, you will have well-written letters of recommendations that come from the heart of those who agreed to assist you on this next important part of your educational and professional journey – graduate school.


  • Chris Kado

    For over a decade, Chris has supported students across the globe in fulfilling their college aspirations. Chris started out as a college admissions consultant, where he helped community college students reduce their loan obligations by constructing comprehensive transfer strategies, maximizing the use of CLEP and AP credits, and scoring scholarships. ‍ During his graduate studies at Harvard, Chris held numerous roles in education, including working as a research assistant and advising students on the college admissions process. Chris holds extensive experience in essay development and preparation for the SAT and SAT Subject Tests. His guidance has enabled students to gain admission into diverse programs at institutions including UC Berkeley, Princeton, the University of Chicago, Michigan, Harvard, Fashion Institute of Technology, Embry-Riddle, Notre Dame, and Duke. ‍ Chris holds an Master's in History from Harvard University and is currently working towards a Master's in Education at UIUC. He also received a College Advising Program Certificate from Columbia University, completed the Independent Educational Consultant Certificate from University of California Irvine, and earned the Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults (CELTA) from Cambridge. Nowadays, Chris continues to serve a full-time role as a College Counselor for WeAdmit, write insightful articles for Magoosh, and teach at Education First summer camps!

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