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Impactful Recommendation Letters for Graduate Admissions

By Indhika, IvyWise Graduate Admissions Counselor

Many graduate programs require three letters of recommendation as part of their application process. Recommendation letters are the only part of your application that you will not be able to review and, as such, it is important to identify recommendation letters writers that will most compellingly capture your skills, achievements, personal attributes, and potential contributions to the school you are applying to and field you are building a career in.

While admissions committees read A LOT of recommendation letters that often sound very much alike, there are some recommendation letters that truly stand out and enhance an applicant’s profile. Below are six tips to ensure that your recommendation letters add value and depth to your application.

6 Things to Know About Graduate Admissions Recommendation Letters

Recommendation Letter Writers Should Know the Best You

Recommendation letter writers should not just know you well, but they should know the BEST things about you ⁠—academically, professionally, and personally. And they should have worked with you in either an academic or professional context. Academically, identify professors who have taught classes you have excelled in and who you have a good relationship with. While you may have worked closely with Teaching Assistants or Instructors, it is important that your academic recommendation letters come from someone with the title of ‘Professor.’

For professional recommendations, focus on supervisors who have overseen your most successful projects⁠—the ones where you have exceeded expectations, demonstrated strong leadership skills, and exhibited effective collaborative and collegial skills. In some instances, a colleague may be a good choice as well, especially if they have earned the advanced degree you are seeking and worked closely with you on projects that highlighted your strengths and skills in relation to this.

While it may be tempting to ask for a recommendation from someone who knows you personally and has a very high opinion of you, this can be detrimental to your application. Admissions committees are looking for academic and professional letters that confirm your background and experience while also sharing the unique and valuable personal qualities that make you shine.

Balance Academic Skills and Professional Qualities

Academic recommendation letters should highlight skills, such as critical thinking, writing, research, and quantitative skills. Professional recommendation letters will touch on these aspects, but will also elaborate on qualities such as leadership, management style, teamwork, collaboration, and initiative. A good rule of thumb is to have a combination of letters from professors and supervisors that reflect the amount of your post-undergraduate work experience. For example, if you have four years of work experience, and have had more than one supervisor or job, you may submit two letters of recommendation from your supervisors and one letter of recommendation from a professor.

That said, if you cannot submit letters in a balanced combination, think about how you might present a strong balance of academic skills and professional qualities. For example, if you do not have any work or internship experience but have a very strong academic record, you can submit three letters from professors and ensure that at least one speaks to your professional skills such as leadership, collaboration, management, and initiative.

Alternately, if you have been working for many years and cannot submit a letter of recommendation from a professor, you must ensure that at least one recommendation speaks to your academic skills, such as critical thinking, writing, and research.

Avoid The Fame Game

Put simply, if you know someone famous but they don’t really know you – don’t ask them for a letter of recommendation. If you have a famous family friend who does not know you academically or professionally – don’t ask them. If you work in the office of a famous politician but barely interact with them – don’t ask them. There are some instances where you might submit a supplemental letter if it truly adds value to your application and this can be discussed on a case-by-case basis.

Start Early….Really Early

While you are an undergraduate, take time to cultivate strong mentorships with professors. If you love a subject and excel in a class, make sure you go to office hours, apply for research or teaching assistant positions, and take on any optional projects that make you stand out and enable you to work closely with a professor.

If you are planning to work after your undergraduate studies you can ask your professors to write a general recommendation letter to be stored with the school, professor, or a dossier service. That way your professor can have a template to reference for a future request.

It is never too early to cultivate and sustain valuable academic and professional contacts. Following graduation, stay in touch with professors and mentors. Building a network has lifelong benefits.

Time Your Request

Professors and supervisors are often inundated with recommendation letter requests in November and December. Beat the end-of-year rush and start reaching out in the summer or early Fall. Keep in mind that professors, and some supervisors, may be on leave for all or part of the summer and less likely to respond to email. As such, you may need to send a few reminders to your recommendation letter writers. Allowing 6-8 weeks for recommendation letters to be completed is a good way to ensure timely submission.

Information to Give to Your Recommendation Letter Writers

More is better! Your recommendation letters writers will appreciate any information that supports your graduate application and request for a letter. Make sure to provide them with a cover note that includes your motivations for attending graduate school, a brief snapshot of relevant coursework, highlights from your post-undergraduate work experience, the schools you are applying to, and any guidelines or links on how to submit the recommendation form. You should also send a resume, transcript, and your personal statement if this is drafted. For professors, you should include courses you took with them, relevant research projects, and highlights from your academic performance and work you undertook with them. For supervisors, you should focus on achievements at your job.

As you can see, submitting impactful recommendation letters takes time, effort, and reflection. While there are nuances in each case, these tips can provide some guideposts as you think about graduate school. And remember, while bragging about yourself is never a good idea, having strong recommendation writers who compellingly advocate for your candidacy is invaluable.

At IvyWise, we work with students applying to graduate programs to help them put together the best applications possible, including help with selecting recommendation letter writers. For more information on how we can help you gain admission to your best-fit graduate programs, contact us today.

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