Grad School Letters of Recommendation: The Ultimate Guide

Grad School Letters of Recommendation

It’s a little known fact that the more competitive your target grad school, the more important your LORs will be. Applying for a master’s at Podunk State Technical University? LORs won’t matter that much. They’ll focus on your quantitative metrics – GPA, test scores, transcripts, etc. But Stanford? Princeton? Schools where every applicant has insane grades and research experiences? In this case, your admission may depend entirely on your SOP and grad school letters of recommendation.

Unfortunately, LORs often seem like they’re completely out of our control. They aren’t like the SOP where you can spend months tailoring a luminous, intelligent self-portrait of your goals. Instead, they’re left to the hands of a poorly dressed, manic-haired professor you may not have spoken to in a long time.

Luckily, with this guide, you’ll learn how to take control of your LORs. This isn’t a guide to the function and process of grad school letters of recommendation. You’re a grown up. You should know this already. Instead, it’s a guide to getting the maximum impact from your LORs.

Because this is your goal: to have professors, advisors, and managers submit raving, interesting, and (most importantly) persuasive letters that convince grad schools you’re the right candidate for them. Let’s get started.

Who to ask?

Consider this your hard-and-fast rule:

You will not ask for LORs from people who aren’t dedicated to helping you succeed.

Every year, hundreds of students across social media ask whether it’s better to get an LOR from 1) a chipper assistant professor who adores them and knows their work, or 2) some stodgy Professor Emeritus who barely knows their name, but is an icon in the field.

Choose the chipper assistant professor every time.

The fame of your LOR author has virtually nothing to do with your success. Their fame is their fame. It’s not your fame. The purpose of the LOR is to build your fame, and the only way to build fame is to have raving fans. It doesn’t matter if the letter author won a Nobel Prize. If they can’t speak intimately about your potential as a scholar, if they aren’t eager to help you succeed, it will have zero positive effect on your admissions chances.

Whether choosing among former professors, lab PIs, or corporate managers, you should ask yourself 3 questions before deciding who to ask for LORs:

  1. Does this person know me well enough to write persuasive details and anecdotes that no one else could write?
  2. Will this person say vibrant, positive things about me?
  3. Can I trust this person to submit my LORs in an organized way, long before deadlines, or are they the twitchy, suspicious sort who can’t even remember to match their socks in the morning?

Remember, however, that grad schools will expect letters from your key advisors – your lab PIs, thesis advisors, or direct supervisors at work. If they don’t send an LOR, then admissions committees may smell something fishy in the water. Some students have horrid experiences with PIs and assume, reasonably, that this isn’t the best person to ask. In such cases, you may consider explaining why you haven’t asked them – politely and professionally – in your Additional Info section.

How to ask for fantastic grad school letters of recommendation?

First things first, don’t just show up at random office hours, staring at your bellybutton and mumbling, “Excuse me, sir, but could you write me a letter?” Instead, show up just as prepared as you will for Zoom interviews with PhD advisors. Bring a school list. Bring a folder that includes everything they need to know about you and your goals. Make it easy for them.

What materials should you provide?

  1. Your Statement of Purpose: Make sure it’s polished, edited, and brilliant. If you’re a good applicant, you’ll have finished this the summer before you apply. If you’re procrastinating, don’t worry. You can still get a good LOR, but you missed a great opportunity.
  1. Your Transcripts: Print these off and highlight important classes, those most relevant to your academic field, and those in which you earned the best grades.
  1. A Sample of Your Work: This may be a research paper or a lab report. Including this will allow the letter author to really dig in and highlight your potential. It gives them “ammo” to write positive things about you.
  1. Resume or CV: Make sure to include work and internship experiences that your letter author may not know about (but try to keep them related to your academic field). Also include any relevant skills like coding languages, lab techniques, professional certifications, or foreign language proficiency that will be necessary to your work in grad school.
  1. List of People You Plan to Ask for LORs: This may not be entirely relevant if you’re a Big 4 accountant asking your manager, but it’s especially important if you’re asking professors. It gives them more context about you, your work, and the people who know you well.
  1. Highlights and Talking Points: Help your letter authors think of positive things to say about you. They’re only suggestions, but a polite nudge can go a long way. They may not know about your tutoring experience and your eagerness to TA in grad school. They may not be fully aware of the sub-niche you’re moving into. They might not even be from the same academic field. Emphasize your strengths and goals so all parts of your application can link up. If you’ve already written your SOP, include your “Sentence of Purpose.”
  1. List of Dates When You Will SUBMIT Your Applications: Don’t give your professors a list of application deadlines. That’s cutting it too close. Things happen. Too many students have to frantically call professors two hours before a deadline and remind them to submit. I promise you, this never generates good LORs. Instead, give them the date (hopefully one month in advance) when YOU plan to submit.

When to Ask?

Try to give your LOR authors at least 6 weeks before you want them to submit. But, be respectful of their time. Don’t ask at the semester’s beginning or end when they’re typically extremely busy. A good rule of thumb is 10-12 weeks before your application deadline. Remember, don’t tell THEM your application deadline. Tell them when YOU plan to submit – 4 weeks early – and ask for letters 6-8 weeks before that.

Embrace Awkwardness

When you visit your potential LOR authors, prepare to ask them – honestly – what they would say about you. This might be painful and awkward, but it’s necessary. Some professors will be brutally honest. Others may love you to pieces, but if they can’t quickly think of great things to say about you, they may not be the best LOR writer for you. Either way, if someone is going to write a potentially lukewarm or even negative LOR, you want to find out early and move on. Better to deal with a little awkwardness than to get rejected from grad school because of a dull LOR.

Follow Up

After 2-3 folks agree to write your grad school letters of recommendation, you should send them a polite reminder email once a week. Professors are busy people. It’s up to you to make sure you don’t get lost in the ever-growing stacks of paper on their desks. It also reinforces the idea that you’re an organized, mature student dedicated to success.

Elements of a Great LOR

Excellent grad school letters of recommendation will contain some mixture of the following elements:

  1. Detailed analysis of the candidate’s intellectual capacity, via anecdotal testimony

This usually involves a personal story where the professor details something awesome you did in class or in the lab. If you’re a student with a low GPA, you may want to remind your professor of your most successful project, and ask them to focus on this in their writing. If a trustworthy professor is willing to emphasize such an achievement, it can go a long way toward making a low-ish GPA disappear.

  1. Superlative comparison to other students

“Jennifer is one of the five best research assistants I’ve ever had.”

“Mr. Pakala is easily among the top 10% of students I’ve ever taught.”

When meeting with your LOR authors, ask them to quantify their opinion of you this way. If they seem uneasy, it will feel embarrassing, but it will let you know that this person may not be the best LOR author for you.

  1. Positive comments on the applicant’s social and behavioral characteristics

If you’ve read Structure Is Magic, you know that grad schools are looking for good people. Academia is intense, collaborative, and occasionally brutal. They need to know that you’re going to be a productive and friendly member of the community (hence, the value of Personal Contribution and Diversity Statement essays). In this regard, an effusive note from a professor will carry more weight than any other part of your application.

Work habits. Organizational skills. Teamwork. Cheerfulness. Willingness to give 110%. Obstacles you’ve overcome in your life. Great grad school letters of recommendation highlight these personal, human qualities (and hopefully give examples).

  1. References to a “weakness” to maintain objectivity (often slyly turning it into a strength)

Though you want your LOR authors to be raving fans, they can’t actually come across like goggle-eyed K-pop Stans. Thus, professors will often contextualize their recommendation by mentioning something you need to improve.

This is fine. It’s expected. It’s okay.

Usually, professors will backtrack and imply this “weakness” is anything but weak. For example, they may say you spend too much time working in the Student Government, and will have to learn to prioritize in graduate school, but considering that you still have 4.0 GPA this shouldn’t be a problem. They may say that you hold your peers to an incredibly high standard, and this sometimes seems brusque, but won’t be a problem in Competitive Dream University where everyone works as hard as you.

  1. Assurances of the applicant’s future career success

For grad school admissions committees, the game is all about finding young stars who will make an impact in their field, go on to stellar careers, and increase the department’s profile. This is how schools climb the rankings. For them it’s a dream come true when an LOR author says, emphatically, “Joaquin is going to be a star in biostatistics and I have no doubt he’ll contribute to meaningful cancer research in the future.”

The best LORs will not just say this, but show it by highlighting unique accomplishments you’ve made as an undergrad. This is related to points 1 and 2 above, where an LOR author might claim: “Yiling’s thesis on Nietzsche’s inspiration in the opera of Wagner was among the best honor’s projects any undergrads in this department have ever written, and I am certain she will continue this impressive level of achievement throughout her career in philosophy.”

What if my professor asks me to write a letter for them?

Sigh…lazy professors.

If your professor asks you to write the letter for them, chances are, this wasn’t the right person to ask. But maybe you come from a country where this is standard? That’s a shame, because the best LORs are highly personal, and you can’t put highly personal statements in the professor’s mouth. (Luckily, if you come from such a country, the admissions committee will already know what to expect.)

In either case, the following template will help. It’s not the only way to write an LOR, but it’s a fine place to start. Try to include as many complementary and fascinating details as you can, without putting words in the professor’s mouth. Then, sit down and discuss it together, allowing them space to fill in their own details.

To Whom It May Concern:

Paragraph 1 – Introduce Your Relationship

  • Be very specific in describing how the professor knows you. Consider listing the classes or labs in which you’ve worked together.
  • End with a positive affirmation of your skills, intellectual capacity, and readiness for grad school.

Paragraph 2 – Illustrative Anecdote

  • Tell the story of your greatest experience(s) together. This should include one of the shining moments of your academic career, and it should reveal your intellectual potential and compare you positively to other students.
  • Don’t put words in the professor’s mouth, but try to include memorable details. If you were prototyping a robotic arm, help us see it. What problems would it solve? If you worked together on an honor’s thesis, make sure we know the topic.
  • Emphasize your soft skills: speaking ability, teamwork, organization, discipline, motivation, etc.
  • Make sure the reader knows why this experience was your “shining moment.” Did it win you an award? Did it lead to a poster presentation? Emphasize that this was an accomplishment not many students have. Give qualifying and/or quantitative details.

Paragraph 3 – Illustration of Your Readiness for Grad School

  • If possible, highlight an advanced assignment or project that’s academically related to your future graduate work.
  • Emphasize this academic readiness. Where previously you discussed soft skills, here discuss your high-level grasp of visual servoing, photonic circuits, two-mode sociological networks, or radical universalism in Southern literature.
  • Again, don’t put words in the professor’s mouth, but try to emphasize that you’re already doing graduate-level work.
  • Mention a “weakness” to remain objective, but give a sly wink to note that this may not actually be a weakness. For example: “If Mr. Wayne has any weaknesses, it’s doing excessive work that goes beyond the parameters of his assignments – doing more than was asked.”

Paragraph 4 – Conclusion, Superlatives, Comparison

  • Restate the hard and soft skills mentioned throughout the letter.
  • Assert that you have a bright career in [whatever your field].
  • Close with a blank space, and ask your professor to insert a quantitative comparison to other students they’ve taught in their career. For example: “Mr. Crane is easily among the top 10 psychology students I’ve taught in my ten-year career at Gotham University.”

A Powerful, Persuasive Sample LOR

To Whom It May Concern:

I take the greatest pleasure in writing this letter of recommendation for Ms. Arkina Shahinian for admission to the M.S. Program in Sustainability and Development. Ms. Shahinian has been my student three times – first in a large survey class, Global Change, second in Environmental Conflicts: Energy and Power, and lastly in her independent study honor’s thesis, for which I was her advisor. Thus, I have given Ms. Shahinian an A+ three times.

In our earliest encounters, Ms. Shahinian distinguished herself, immediately, as a singular and marvelous student. In the first week of classes, she showed rare powers of articulation, asking questions about assigned reading so fascinating, showing such insight and comprehension, that I can still recall them today. In a lecture hall of 100 undergraduates, she already seemed like a graduate student, prompting my head TA to remark: “That one has the spark, doesn’t she?” Yet, with her easy manner, Ms. Arkinian never seemed to intimidate her classmates; instead she became a rare gift in the classroom, a student who generated discussion instead of bringing it to an end. Unsurprisingly, her writing soon proved to be just as remarkable, and by mid-semester, I actually looked forward to grading her work.

Clearly, I have a maintained a close relationship with Ms. Shahinian ever since. Her recent thesis comparing the EU4Energy Program and policy options in the Middle East possesses subtlety and intellectual courage, and we have already discussed how its deep theoretical concerns could generate new topics of inquiry in graduate school. I am also highly impressed by her adaptation of the material in a mainstream article for The New Statesman, to be published next month – an unbelievable accomplishment for an undergraduate.

With her fiery intelligence, curiosity, remarkably elegant speaking ability, intense motivation, and cheerfulness among peers and teachers, I have no doubt that Ms. Shahinian will have a very bright career in public policy. I claim with all honesty and pleasure that she is among the 2 or 3 best students I’ve ever encountered in my twenty-year career at Stark University.

**Hot Tip: See the resources in the conclusion below for more sample LORs!

What to do afterward?

After your LOR author has submitted your references, you need to do two things:

  1. Send a thank you card or small gift. This is thoughtful. It’s what civilized people do. Don’t go overboard, but do something to show your gratitude. When in doubt, a small, handwritten thank you card is always well received.
  2. Let them know your results! This professor has taken time to help you achieve your goals. When you’re accepted, share that achievement with them, and express your gratitude once again.

Conclusion and Resources

Grad school letters of recommendation are important. Maybe more important than you know. The key to success is planning early, asking professors or managers eager to help you succeed, and giving them all the info they need to write highly personal, persuasive letters.

If you want to learn more about generating impactful LORs, the following resources may help:

Reddit notes from Donald Asher’s expansive Graduate Admissions Essays (with chapter on LORs)

Sample LOR from UC-Berkeley

Harvard University’s LOR Guide for Faculty

Oh, and if you’re starting early and really want to make sure your professors think you’re a rock star in the making…finish your Statement of Purpose early and give them a copy. I’d love to help.

How are you planning to generate LORs that blow ad comms away?

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