Who to Ask for Letters of Recommendation for Grad School

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Figuring out who to ask for letters of recommendation for grad school is often a frustrating and stressful task for grad school hopefuls. Regardless of the type of grad program you are applying for, you will likely need at least one letter of recommendation vouching for you and your work – ideally from a trusted, authoritative source. But who qualifies as a trusted, authoritative source?!

More often than not, if you find yourself wondering who to ask for letters of recommendation for grad school applications, you need to think about all of the people who know you either personally or professionally. This is by far the most important factor. You cannot simply ask a random person of high esteem for a recommendation letter. Instead, you should consider authorities who have worked with you – typically former or current professors or employers.

Who should you ask to write your grad school applications?

If you are applying for grad school, whether it is an MBA, Master’s of Data Science, a PhD in a niche field, or something else, you will need to have references who will vouch for your character, intelligence, work ethic, and talent. If you’re applying for a Master’s or PhD in Humanities or STEM, it can also be helpful to have an advisor who can speak to your experience in the field of study you’re applying for. This is less important for MBA applicants!

Here are a few questions to consider when determining who to ask for letters of recommendation:

  • How well does this person know me?
  • Does this person have a generally positive view of me?
  • Is this person relevant to the field of study I’m interested in going into?
  • Is this person someone I’ve worked closely with?
  • Has this person been my professor, my manager, or my employer?

It is important to note that you should not cherry-pick these questions. Ask all of them about each potential “candidate.”

Professors or Employers?

Truthfully, professors or people who’ve managed you are the most trusted option for grad school recommendation letters, as graduate admission committees will give much more weight to letters of recommendation from professors who have directly evaluated your work and believe that you are qualified for the graduate program.

For this reason, your top picks should be former or current professors or managers with whom you have a good working relationship. For example, a professor who frequently praised your work would be a great choice – as would a manager who saw you have many professional successes over the few years they managed you. Similarly, if you spent many hours helping your professor with tasks relevant to your area of study or having discussions during office hours, they would also be able to write a great letter of recommendation!

Ideally, you would get recommendation letters from employers who work in a field that is directly or tangentially related to the program for which you are applying, but unfortunately for many applicants, this may not be an option.

Think about if you were in their shoes – would it be easy to write a student like you a glowing letter of recommendation? Do they have enough experiences with you to be able to give specific examples of why you’ll be successful in the future?

That said, you may not feel comfortable or confident reaching out to any of your past or current professors. In this case, you should consider educators who may not have the title of “professor” but still have relevant knowledge and experience (like high school teachers or highly qualified tutors).

How many recommendation letters do you need?

It is also important to remember that you should try to secure more than one letter of recommendation. So, whether you have multiple professors, multiple employers and managers, or a wide range of people to ask, you should definitely reach out to more than one authoritative source. However, this does not mean that you should send out a mass email to every former professor or employer you know. Focus your attention on the people who know you best, have the highest credentials, and are most likely to write a great letter on your behalf!

But what if you don’t want your current boss to know you’re applying to grad school? This is a legitimate concern, as this knowledge could affect your ability to maintain employment and save up money for school – or could impact the quality of the recommendation letter they write. Ultimately, you’ll know best if letting your manager know about grad school makes sense to do, or not. In most cases, employers would likely prefer to have advanced notice that you might go back to school, even if it’s not for another six or nine months.

However – you could also ask former employers or managers whenever possible. This way, you can keep your graduate education goals private until you are ready to inform your current employer.

When considering who to ask for letters of recommendation for grad school, it is also vital to think about who you should NOT ask. Generally speaking, friends and family should not be considered for recommendation letters, even if they have relevant credentials. Why? Because the admissions board could easily research the person and see a major conflict of interest. This, in turn, could automatically result in a rejected application!

How to Ask for Letters of Recommendation for Grad School

Once you know who to ask for letters of recommendation, you have to actually sit down and write out requests to each person. While you can have a templated version to send to everyone, always remember to address each person by their name and personalize your requests! Avoid phrases like “To Whom It May Concern.” Instead, write a professional email that gets straight to the point while also explaining the circumstances thoroughly. Here is a sample template to write to a former employer or professor:

Dear [Name],

It has been a while since our last correspondence, so I hope this email finds you well. I am writing to you because I am in the process of applying for the [Name of Graduate Program]. I’m really excited about the possibility of getting my [Name of Graduate Program], because [reasons you’re excited about school!]

Assuming you have the availability, I would be deeply honored if you would write a recommendation letter for my application. The application is due in [date].

If you’re open to it, please let me know by early next week – and I’ll send you everything you need to get started. My goal is to make the process as smooth as possible for you!

Thanks so much, and please do not hesitate to reach out if you have any questions.

Your support would be greatly appreciated!


[Your Name]

Keep in mind that this is a relatively “bare bones” template. If you really want to amplify your success rate when requesting letters of recommendation, be sure to include details about the graduate program and, more importantly, your qualifications. You could be writing to a professor you have not seen in 10 years. So, they may need a reminder of who you are and what you can do. You might even consider attaching a personal essay you have written for your application or samples of your past or current work. Providing little or no information about what you need and your qualifications will often result in a lower success rate.

If you are writing an email to someone you currently study or work under, you may not need to be quite as formal or provide as much information. You can send a very similar email or even ask about a possible recommendation letter in person. If you are asking for a recommendation letter in person, remember to be humble and respectful. Do not open with “can you write me a recommendation letter?” First, you should explain your plans, aspirations, and qualifications. Then, you can shift the conversation toward recommendation letters. Ask them if a recommendation letter would be a possibility. Also, do not automatically assume that they will say “yes.” You can give them time to think it over if they do not have an immediate answer for you.

When someone agrees to write a recommendation letter for you, make sure to give them a clear deadline. You should try to ask for them to finish no less than two to three weeks before you need it. Ideally, you should broach the subject of a recommendation letter a few months in advance of when you need it. This way, the person has plenty of time to sit down and write an authentic, sincere letter of recommendation – and gives you time in case you need to find an additional recommender.

One more note – if you’re planning to ask a professor or other type of educator, keep in mind that they may be planning to be away from their office during the summer and winter holidays!

What happens if they say no?

So what happens if the person says no or does not respond at all? Unfortunately, there is really not much you can do in this case besides following up politely. If someone does not want to write a letter, they likely have a reason for it. Most professors and employers frequently write letters of recommendation and are happy to help aspiring graduate students, so if they say no or do not respond, don’t stress; they are probably just very busy.

In any case, do not get discouraged if you can’t get recommendation letters from everyone you ask. As long as you can meet the minimum requirements of the graduate program for recommendation letters, you are all set!


  • Matthew Jones

    Matthew Jones is a freelance writer with a B.A. in Film and Philosophy from the University of Georgia. It was during his time in school that he published his first written work. After serving as a casting director in the Atlanta film industry for two years, Matthew acquired TEFL certification and began teaching English abroad. In 2017, Matthew started writing for dozens of different brands across various industries. During this time, Matthew also built an online following through his film blog. If you’d like to learn more about Matthew, you can connect with him on Twitter, LinkedIn, or his personal website!

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