Recommendation letters are a vital part of graduate school application abroad. Having credible academic and professional references vouch for your skills, traits, and abilities helps admission committees determine your candidature.
The process of requesting recommendation, however, letters can be pretty awkward…especially if you’re reaching out to people you haven’t been in contact with for a while.
If you’re applying for graduate school abroad, you probably have a lot of questions about letters of recommendation.
Who should you ask? How should you ask? What information should you provide your recommenders with?
To answer these questions and more, let’s explore everything you need to know about getting recommendation letters for graduate school.
What is a Recommendation Letter?
A recommendation letter for graduate school is a document that an academic or professional reference writes to verify and vouch for your skills, experience, and personality traits.
In addition to your grades, academic records, resume, and personal statements, letters of recommendation help graduate school admission committees decide whether you’re a great fit for the program you’ve applied to.
Is a Recommendation Letter the Same as a Reference Letter?
The university program you’re applying to might ask applicants to provide either letters of recommendation or reference letters. Are they one and the same?
Well, some universities use the two terms interchangeably. However, in theory, recommendation letters and reference letters are quite different.
- Recommendation letter: Recommendation letters are required explicitly by academic programs and are usually submitted directly to the university by the recommender. The person being recommended isn’t supposed to see the letter before it’s sent. A recommendation letter is highly specific to the program you’ve applied to.
- Reference letter: An academic reference letter is usually given directly to you by your referee. Reference letters tend to be general (not tailored to a specific program), for the individual to use in various applications. Reference letters are usually addressed as “To Whom It May Concern” or “Dear Sir/Madam.”
Who Should You Ask to Write Your Recommendation Letters?
Short answer: it depends on the program you’re applying to.
In some cases, the university may specify who should write your recommendation letters. For instance they may ask for recommendation letters from only professors or professional references or from both.
Recommendation letters from academic references are expected to focus on your academic skills and achievements. On the other hand, letters of recommendation from professional references should focus on professional experiences and skills that are relevant to the program.
Most graduate programs require applications to include two to four letters of recommendation. If the number of recommendation letters isn’t indicated, play it safe by providing three.
Create a list of several people who you’ve worked closely with who can make great recommenders for your application.
Here are some tips to help you select great recommenders:
- Should know you well: Only ask for recommendation letters from people who know you well. Think about professors or supervisors you’ve spent a lot of time with who can confidently vouch for you.
- Should be able to address specific strengths: Think about who can confidently speak about specific strengths that make you a great fit for the graduate program. Professors in whose courses you excelled and supervisors who were impressed by your work make great recommenders.
- Should have meaningful stories to share: Select someone who can tell specific stories to highlight your strengths and suitability for the graduate program.
- Should write effectively: Who is likely to write a persuasive recommendation letter? Select a recommender with great writing skills.
Who You Shouldn’t Ask for Recommendation Letters
It’s unlikely that anyone will write you a bad recommendation letter on purpose. Professors or employers who, for any reason, don’t want to write you a positive recommendation are more likely to decline your request.
Nevertheless, certain referees are likely to provide weak recommendations, which can harm your application. Listed below are a few persons you shouldn’t approach for a letter of recommendation:
- Professors who don’t know you well: Don’t ask for recommendation letters from professors who don’t know you well. They’ll probably just restate the information you’ve included in your resume as they don’t know you on a personal level.
- Someone who will write a generic letter: Some professors are known to write generic letters for their students. You want your recommender to be someone who’ll care enough to put effort in writing a personalized letter.
- Someone likely to write an unfavorable letter: It goes without saying—don’t ask for recommendation letters from people who, for any reason, might have an unfavorable opinion of you. Professors in whose courses you performed dismally or supervisors who didn’t like your work won’t have great things to say about you.
Now let’s get into the good stuff! How exactly should you ask for recommendation letters?
How to Ask for Recommendation Letters
Many people find asking for recommendation letters to be a daunting, awkward task. How you frame the request is just as important as selecting the right recommender.
Here are some tips to help you effectively navigate the process of asking for recommendation letters for graduate school applications:
Approach Recommenders Thoughtfully
This is a big favor to ask—so be sure to ask in a thoughtful and respectful manner.
Don’t corner professors in the hallways to ask for recommendation letters. Instead, request for a brief meeting with the prospective recommender, highlighting that you’d like to discuss your plans for graduate school.
Save the actual request for a recommendation letter and a detailed explanation for the meeting. During the meeting, highlight how much you value your experience working with them, your aspirations, and how their input will help you in your graduate school applications.
State exactly why you’d like them to write you a recommendation letter. Perhaps they inspired you to follow a specific path, or they helped you learn certain key skills.
In-person meetings are best for making this kind of request. They give you the opportunity to read the person’s body language to gauge their receptiveness to your request.
However, if you can’t have an in-person meeting, video or phone calls will do. What about email? Written communication tends to be less personal and leaves room for interpretation of the message. Only use email as a last resort.
Be Considerate of the Recommender’s Time
You have to be considerate of your recommenders’ time.
Ideally, you should make your request at least four weeks before the submission deadline. Doing so gives the recommender adequate time to write the letter without rushing to meet a deadline.
It’s a good idea to build in a buffer time by requesting them to provide the letter a week or two before the actual deadline. That way, in case of unseen foreseen circumstances, your recommender will still be able to submit the letter on time.
In addition, make your request early in the semester—professors tend to be busier towards the end of the semester.
Provide an Easy Out for Prospective Recommenders
Weak recommendation letters will do more harm than good. To avoid getting lukewarm letters, provide your prospective recommenders with the opportunity to gracefully decline your request.
Explicitly ask if they’re comfortable with writing a recommendation letter for you, highlighting specific strengths. If you sense reluctance, thank them and move on to the next person on your list.
If someone declines your request, take it gracefully. It gives you the opportunity to approach someone who’s willing to write you a glowing recommendation letter.
Important Information to Provide Your Recommender With
Once the professor, employer, or supervisor accepts your request for a recommendation letter, the next step is to provide them with the information they’ll need. Don’t assume that they’ll remember everything they need to know about you.
For example, a supervisor might not remember specific details about your contribution to a project. Similarly, a professor might remember that you were a good student, but not the specifics about your course project and your extracurricular activities.
That’s why it’s crucial to provide recommenders with a “brag sheet” detailing your strengths, achievements, goals, and challenges. Having this information at hand will help them write a more detailed and compelling letter of recommendation for you.
Provide the recommender with the following:
- The university name and specific program you’re applying to
- Your academic transcripts detailing your courses/subjects and grades
- An updated resume or CV
- A copy of your personal statement
- Your research work highlights
- Highlights of your professional experience
- A list of awards or honors received
- An outline of your professional goals
- Instructions for submitting the letter of recommendation
- The deadline for submission
- Your contact information
Don’t Forget to Follow Up
It’s understandable that you don’t want to pester your recommenders. However, it’s important to follow up to make sure that they remember to write the letter in time.
The best time to follow up is about a week or two before the due date. That will remind them to write the letter or put in some finishing touches before submission.
Around the deadline date, send a quick follow-up text or email to check whether they’ve submitted the letter.
Be polite and respectful when following up. Remember, writing you a recommendation letter is a favor and not an obligation.
Consider asking to review the letter before submission. This will give you a chance to make any necessary changes. However, some programs ask you to waive your right to review recommendation letters. In such cases, it’s important to comply.
Don’t forget to send a thank you note once they submit the letter of recommendation. Make sure to update your recommenders on the outcomes of your application and thank them for their support.
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