Grad school is a huge (but amazing) step. But before you can even think about how you'll get through it, you have to find the grad school that's right for you, your learning style, and your goals—and get in.
Having to prove yourself before you've even started classes can be daunting. The good news is that part of your application won't require you to advocate for your character and qualifications: your letters of recommendation. In this case, other people will do the advocating for you.
Of course, procuring recommendation letters for graduate school isn't all passing the buck. Here's how to properly request one for less application stress (and more admissions success).
A recommendation letter isn't just a space-filler. It's a chance for you to brag about how capable and wonderful you are… without actually bragging. Consider how differently you'd interpret these statements that carry the same core message:
"I am amazing, skilled, intelligent, and memorable. You should definitely admit me."
"This student is impressively skilled and intelligent in a way that caused her to stand out from the pack. Based on my experience teaching this student and guiding her through a particularly challenging project on X, I recommend her heartily."
The distinction? Someone else waxing poetic is always going to be more convincing (and less cringe-y) than boasting yourself. It's why we trust customer reviews more than advertising. An objective second opinion can clarify strengths and vanquish doubts. It can also elucidate details and impressions that—no matter how self-aware you might be—you couldn't quite recognize and articulate yourself.
Think of a recommendation letter as a chance to brandish a stamp of approval, replete with resounding, glowing details. It adds extra flavor to any personal statements and information you provide, allowing you to present a full—and positive—picture of yourself, to truly put your best foot forward.
Of course, acquiring the perfect recommendation letter is easier said than done. Ideally, you'd have a plethora of options from which to choose. (You scene-stealer, you.) In truth, you may only have authentically connected with a small pool of folks in appropriate positions of authority to speak for you. That's OK.
Fortunately, when it comes to a recommendation letter, there isn't just one perfect person. You want to ask someone who's the best fit for the opportunity at hand. This means that while stature counts, specificity counts for more.
You should ask someone who knows you well, plus is known to your reviewers. But if you feel stuck between the graduate student who led your five-person sophomore seminar or a big-name professor who taught a gigantic lecture class and never met you for office hours, pick the graduate student.
Remember, the details are the most critical part of a letter of recommendation. (Otherwise, a transcript of classes and grades would be enough.) You want someone who knows you and your intricacies to write your letter. If you're going from the workforce to grad school, a manager or boss may be just the ticket. But unless the application asks for one, avoid peer recommendations. You want someone who can speak from a position of authority, not only kinship.
So you've picked out your recommender. Great! Now it's time to make that important request so you can actually, y' know, receive a recommendation letter.
As with all things professional, courtesy counts. Don't skimp on thoughtfulness. Give your recommender a ton of advance notice (at least three weeks before the deadline). Your recommender is doing you a huge favor, and you want them to craft something careful and of quality. Rushing them will only cause anxiety and lead to a diminished result that ultimately doesn't just affect them—it affects you.
You can ask in person, or you can ask by email. If you go the email route, be concise, polite, and specific. Include information on the opportunity you are applying for, why you are eager to achieve this opportunity, and why you have selected this person to speak on your behalf. Include information on the school, program, requested format, and deadline.
If they need a link to submit your info, either provide it upfront or give them a specific date or timeline for when it will be coming later. If the application is going old school and needs a physical letter sent in, provide a pre-addressed, stamped envelope. (Classy.)
Don't leave anything to guesswork, but also be mindful of how busy they are. The easier you make it for them to speak well of you, the better chance you have of receiving just what you need.
Rejection is a part of life, and that goes for school applications—and recommendation requests, too. Don't be upset if a potential recommender declines to write for you. It sounds counterintuitive, but it's a good thing. You want a letter from someone eager to lavish praise upon you. If someone is unable or unwilling to do so, they weren't the right pick. Take a breath, politely thank them, and move on to the next contender.
Once you've found someone who agrees to the task, provide them with even more information. You don't want to overload them, but—despite how excellent of an impression you made—schools are busy places. Your recommender may not remember every detail, or they might (gasp!) mix you up with someone else.
That's why it's best to seed as many salient details as you can muster. Mention specific, relevant projects or accomplishments they can reference, whether it was a paper, project, or discussion you shared (and hopefully wowed them with). Bring up attributes you want them to mention, with links or attachments to particular examples to help jog their memory. This can take your recommendation from generically positive to precisely compelling.
Remember, they're not just tailoring the recommendation letter to you; they're tailoring it to the specific opportunity, as well. Include details on the particular program you are excited about, plus qualities and experiences you possess that sync up with it. The better you can draw the links for them, the better they can convey them to those critically reviewing your application.
Your spotless decorum shouldn't end once your recommender agrees to help. Thank them in the moment (with sincerity—they're busy and are doing you a huge, but worthy, favor), and keep them posted. People like to feel like their efforts made a difference. And they're naturally curious, too. So don't leave them hanging!
When you get accepted to a school, let your recommender know. If they care enough to write you a recommendation, they care enough to hear of your resulting success. They've invested in you, so pay back that social currency with news and gratitude.
Keep in touch further down the line, too. If they're in the same field, they'll likely be interested in any fascinating tidbits or discoveries you come across in your new studies (and vice-versa).
Looking even further ahead, file away this experience and advice for a later day. After all, as you advance in your trajectory, you might just become a recommender one day, too.
Questions or feedback? Email email@example.com
Allison Tanenhaus earned her bachelor's degree in English from Harvard, her copyediting certificate from Emerson, and a smattering of continuing-ed design credits from MassArt. After a decade as a marketing and advertising copywriter, she detoured into an abstract art career, where words don't matter at all. She stays in the writing loop via freelancing and mentoring—hence this bio you're reading now.