How (and Who) to Ask For a Letter of Recommendation

Letters of recommendation often make or break a graduate school application. It’s important to think carefully about who to ask and how to do it.

Ideally, you should approach former supervisors who know you and your work well, and can advise you. Different programs require different types of recommendation letters, but the process of requesting them is similar.

Follow these five steps to guarantee a great recommendation, including program-specific tips and email examples.

Step 1: Choose who to ask

Your first step is to decide who you’ll ask to write a letter for you. Ideally, this should be someone who you worked with outside of just the classroom context—for example, a former professor who supervised your research.

It’s important to ask someone who knows you well, even if they are less well known than other professors at your institution. Graduate admissions committees want to get a good sense of your ability to perform well in their program, and this is difficult to accomplish if your recommender only knows you as a face in the crowd.

Who you should ask also strongly depends on the type of program that you’re applying to. Different programs prefer different qualities in their admitted students, and thus weigh types of recommenders differently. Take a look at the program-specific tips below.

For research programs (MPhil, DPhil, PhD, Research Master’s), graduate admissions committees are looking for evidence of your potential as a future researcher.

Since this is tricky to assess from test scores and transcripts, letters of recommendation are often the most important part of a graduate research program application.

Your letter should thus be from someone who can speak to your skills as a researcher. This could be, for example, a professor who supervised you on an independent research project, or the head of a lab that you worked in as an undergraduate.

If you worked as a full-time research or lab assistant after undergrad, ask your managers, who are usually full-time researchers themselves and therefore experts on what makes a good researcher.

Unlike most graduate programs, business schools are less interested in your undergraduate academic performance. Instead, they try to assess your potential to succeed in the workplace, particularly in managerial or leadership positions. The same applies to public policy and other professional programs.

Ideally, your letters of recommendation should come from current supervisors at your work. If this isn’t possible, you should ask coworkers who are senior to you and know your work well.

Although business schools normally prefer candidates with several years of experience, current undergraduates sometimes apply as well. In this case, you should ask internship supervisors or—as a last resort—professors who know you well.

Medical schools look for evidence that you are academically prepared for the study of medicine and that your character is well-suited to becoming a doctor. Admissions committees in medicine prefer academic references, but they also require a few extra steps.

Firstly, while graduate programs usually require two or three recommendation letters, medical schools often ask for more—you may have to submit up to six letters, some of which should be from former professors in the natural sciences.

In addition, many schools recommend that you submit a letter from the premedical advisory committee at your undergraduate institution, which summarizes your overall suitability for medical school. Be aware that deadlines for materials for these letters are very early—often the spring of the year before you are due to start medical school.

Finally, if you’ve worked on any research projects, you should submit a letter from your supervisor. Medical schools view research competence as a plus.

Law school letters of recommendation should mostly be from former professors or other academic supervisors.

You should only use non-academic recommenders if they can directly speak to your suitability to study law—for example, if you regularly work with lawyers, or if your job involves skills like critical reading or research that are relevant to legal practice.

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Step 2: Reach out and request a meeting

The next step is to get in contact with your potential recommender. If you haven’t talked to them in a while, begin your email with a quick reminder to jog their memory. Be friendly, direct, and concise.

If possible, it’s best to plan a meeting to discuss your request. However, if this isn’t practical (for example, if you’ve moved far away from your undergrad institution), you can skip this step and head straight to the third.

Step 3: Ask for a letter of recommendation

Make your request during your meeting or, if necessary, via email. Let them know what sort of programs you are applying to and when the deadlines are. Make sure to give your recommenders plenty of time!

Instead of just asking for a recommendation letter, specifically ask if they can write you a strong recommendation. This allows your recommender an “out”—for example, if they don’t feel they know you well enough. A bad or even lukewarm recommendation is the kiss of death for any application, so it’s important to ensure your letters will be positive!

If they say they can’t give you a strong recommendation, don’t panic. This gives you the opportunity to ask someone else who can provide you a better recommendation.

Step 4: Share your resume and other materials

You should send your resume or CV to your recommenders, along with any other material that might jog their memory or aid in their recommendation.

For instance, you may want to send along your statement of purpose or writing sample if one is requested in your application. Admission committees are looking for a cohesive story that the letters of recommendation, personal statement, and CV work together to tell.

You should also check whether the school provides any prompts or guidelines for recommenders. Many programs want your recommenders to comment on your potential to serve in the specific role the graduate program prepares you for. See the program-specific tips below.

For a research program application, when updating your recommenders, make sure to emphasize any publications or large research projects you’ve completed since you worked together.
For a business school application, ask your recommenders to write on your professional performance and managerial/leadership potential, rather than your academic performance. Business schools often give specific prompts that they want recommenders to answer.
Medical schools and other healthcare programs look for more than academic credentials. Since healthcare professionals are expected to uphold high standards of integrity and professionalism, they also like recommenders to write on applicants’ characters and aptitude to serve the public.

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Step 5: Remind your recommenders of upcoming deadlines

Finally, you should send an email to your recommenders a few weeks before the letters are due, reminding them of the deadline and asking if there is anything else you can send them to assist in writing the letter.

If any materials are late, programs will often reject your entire application, so it is imperative that your recommenders get their letters in on time. However, you should also keep in mind that your letter writers are probably quite busy, so don’t send too many reminders!

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Frequently asked questions about recommendation letters

Who should I ask for a letter of recommendation?

Choose people who know your work well and can speak to your ability to succeed in the program that you are applying to.

Remember, it is far more important to choose someone who knows you well than someone well-known. You may have taken classes with more prominent professors, but if they haven’t worked closely with you, they probably can’t write you a strong letter.

Can I ask non-professors for a letter of recommendation?

This depends on the program that you are applying for. Generally, for professional programs like business and policy school, you should ask managers who can speak to your future leadership potential and ability to succeed in your chosen career path.

However, in other graduate programs, you should mostly ask your former professors or research supervisors to write your recommendation letters, unless you have worked in a job that corresponds closely with your chosen field (e.g., as a full-time research assistant).

What do I say when asking for a letter of recommendation?

It’s best to ask in person if possible, so first reach out and request a meeting to discuss your graduate school plans.

Let the potential recommender know which programs you’re applying to, and ask if they feel they can provide a strong letter of recommendation. A lukewarm recommendation can be the kiss of death for an application, so make sure your letter writers are enthusiastic about recommending you and your work!

Always remember to remain polite. Your recommenders are doing you a favor by taking the time to write a letter in support of your graduate school goals.

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Lauren Thomas

Lauren has a bachelor's degree in Economics and Political Science and is currently finishing up a master's in Economics. She is always on the move, having lived in five cities in both the US and France, and is happy to have a job that will follow her wherever she goes.