Getting Good Recommendations, Grad School Edition

The procedure. The waiting. The suspense. For post-secondary students, grad school applications can be nerve-wracking. Besides your stellar academic record, do you know what else the committee will be combing over? Your recommendation letters. If you want to increase your chances of getting accepted into grad school, here’s what you need to know about getting good recommendations.  

Why Would You Need a Grad School Recommendation Letter?

It can be tempting to skip the recommendation letters and put through an application anyway. After all, letters aren’t always a necessity and what matters here is your transcript right? Well, grad school isn’t just about academics. It’s also about maturity and perseverance. A great recommendation can put you on the fast track to acceptance.

Did You Know?: A quality recommendation letter can convince a committee to take a chance on a student with a lower GPA. Imagine how much stronger your application gets with just one of these letters.


Who Should You Be Asking for a Recommendation?

“You can’t get a student in, but you can make a student not get in.”Shiriam Krishnamurthi of Brown University You don’t want just anyone writing your recommendation letter. With future job prospects and even careers on the line, you’ll have to aim higher than your Little League coach or your favorite high school teacher. For a graduate program, you should ideally be looking for someone who is experienced, qualified, and able to recognize the difference between a great graduate student and one who probably can’t hack it. In short, you should be looking at respected professionals and academics. These will carry the most weight with the committee.  

How Do You Go About Getting a Recommendation?

First, you’ll want to set an appointment and make your request in person. There’s nothing worse than having your e-mails overlooked or your phone calls not returned when you’ve got an application deadline looming overhead. Once you’ve booked a meeting, do your research and be prepared to discuss details like the specifics of the program and the reasons why you’re pursuing that particular line of study. Get this initial discussion out of the way with plenty of time to spare. A rushed letter won't increase your odds of being accepted.  

Qualities of a Well-Written Recommendation Letter Request

“…To describe a person with lackluster credentials: "All in all, I cannot say enough good things about this candidate or recommend him too highly."…”How To Write A Recommendation Letter That You Don't Really Mean What do you want your recommendation letter request to look like? Keep the classic “news” questions in mind when talking to your letter writer.  


Explain who you are and what your relationship is with the person you’re requesting a letter from. Mention a few of your memorable qualities but don’t go overboard.  


Talk about the program you’re applying for as well as what you’re asking your prospective recommender to write.  


This portion is two-fold. First, do your best to book a specific date by which the letter should be finished. Second, mention the type of deadlines you’re working with so that your application is put together with plenty of time to spare.  


Want to be sure that bad blood doesn’t get in the way of your acceptance? Mention the institutions that’ll be receiving your application.  


Be ready to explain why you’re applying for this particular degree and why you’d be the perfect student for this program.   Whether you’re applying for a job or a volunteer position, the people in charge place a high value on quality recommendations. This allows them to hear from other professionals who have worked with you before and it helps them make decisions that are more informed. That’s why you want your recommendations to be excellent when you apply for grad school. No matter what happens though, don't forget to thank your recommender! A hand-written note is always appropriate.