Starting Your Graduate School Application? Here’s How to Request Compelling Letters of Recommendation

We break down who to ask, what you will need and what your letters of recommendation should ultimately include.

Navigating the graduate school application process can be an exciting, yet overwhelming experience. After all, it’s not just a matter of obtaining a transcript and a check — personal statements often need to be written, resumes have to be updated and letters of recommendation need to be procured.

A letter of recommendation can be exactly what an application needs to boost it above the rest, and a well-written letter will demonstrate your skills, your personality and what sets you apart from others, all coming from a trusted secondary source.

So, how do you ensure you receive a strong, compelling letter of recommendation?

Below, we’ve broken down who you should ask, what you’ll need and what the letter should ultimately include.

Who Should You Ask to Write Your Letter of Recommendation?

Most schools will ask you for two to three letters of recommendation. Some will have specific requirements for who can recommend you: Perhaps it has to be a former supervisor or a professor who taught you the subject. Usually, though, it’s broader than that, and you have more freedom.

That doesn’t mean, however, you can ask just anyone.

“[Applicants] should avoid asking their friends or family members,” said Hoon H. Kang, a graduate/international credentials analyst for the Office of Graduate Admission at USC. “If applicants are recent graduates, then they should ask their academic advisor or professor … If they are currently in the field, then they should definitely ask their supervisor, or a manager, or co-workers.”

While choosing which manager or professor to ask, consider some important factors. Do they know you well? If they don’t, they won’t have much to say in the letter. Someone who has known you longer is better, too. If they’ve known you for two years instead of two months, they will have much more to say. Do they regard you in a positive light? That question needs the answer to be “yes” for the letter to be great.

And of course, consider whether this person is an effective communicator. You want this letter to truly convey who you are and what your strengths are and really stand out to the admissions board.

How to Ask Someone to Write a Letter of Recommendation for You

The best way to ask someone to write a letter of recommendation is in-person. If that’s not possible, you can request to schedule a phone call to discuss it. Emailing also works — but make sure you’re asking in a respectful and considerate way.

Explain specifically why you’re asking them, and why you think they’re the right person to recommend you. It’s important to highlight why you’ve chosen them, as this may impact their desire to participate and the quality of the letter.

And of course, make sure you provide an easy out, so no one feels pressured into writing a letter of recommendation. Be considerate and phrase it as a request, not a demand.

When Should You Ask Someone to Write Your Letter of Recommendation?

We recommend asking someone to write your letter as early as six months before the application is due. Don’t ask later than two months before the due date — there just might not be enough time for them to complete it.

If you’re waiting on the letter and it’s getting close to the deadline, it’s fine to follow up. Just make sure you touch base in a considerate manner and that enough time has elapsed where a follow-up seems necessary, not pushy.

What Information Should You Give Your Recommenders?

Before they start crafting your letter, whoever you asked is going to need some important information. Here is what you should pass along to them:

  • A current transcript
  • Your most recent resume
  • A list of where you’re applying
  • A copy of your personal statement and a brief paragraph explaining your career goals
  • Any instructions for the letter of recommendation
  • The submission deadline
  • Anything specific you’d like included in the letter

What Should a Letter of Recommendation Include?

A good letter of recommendation answers the crucial question: Among a competitive field of qualified candidates, why should the school choose you? It demonstrates which skills and qualities you have that will make you a great fit for the program.

The author should provide a description of how exactly they know you and for how long. They should then move into why exactly they’re recommending you for the program. Specificity is key, and detailed anecdotes that highlight your work and skills will make for a stronger letter. They also prove your letter writer is sincere and enthusiastic. You want concrete proof that you’re the right candidate.

“A recommender who knows the applicant pretty well would be able to give a much better image of the applicant to the department,” said Moises Cortés, a graduate/international credentials analyst for the Office of Graduate Admission at USC.

While a letter of recommendation is a formal piece of writing, a sense of personality is encouraged. If it’s very brief, overly dry or too detailed, the admissions board may be less impressed with it.

What to Do After Someone Writes Your Letter of Recommendation

There is a crucial final step after someone writes you a letter of recommendation that you should not skip: Send them a thank-you letter.

They took the time to write something that could help change your life, so be sure to express gratitude for that, whether it’s an email, thank-you card or personalized letter.

After that, it’s time to celebrate this major step in the graduate school application timeline.

For more information, visit the Office of Graduate Admission at USC and explore USC Online’s master’s degrees, doctoral programs and graduate certificates.