How to Write a Letter of Recommendation for Graduate School

To make sure you write an effective and convincing letter of recommendation for a student’s graduate school application, follow these tips and guidelines.

When someone asks you to write a graduate school letter of recommendation, it demonstrates that they value your opinion, trust you and believe in your writing skills.

But as flattering as it is to be asked, there is also some pressure associated with crafting an effective and convincing letter of recommendation. After all, the applicant is counting on you to influence the admissions board and highlight their accomplishments, strengths and skill sets.

The good news is, writing a graduate school letter of recommendation is more intuitive than you think. Below, we’ve rounded up all the tips you need to write the perfect letter for anyone in your sphere.

What Is a Letter of Recommendation?

First off, let’s go over what a letter of recommendation is.

A letter of recommendation is a brief, written endorsement needed for certain jobs, programs or schools that details a person’s qualifications for whatever they’re applying for.

It’s written by a trusted and valued source: usually a past employer, teacher, mentor or colleague. In a letter of recommendation for graduate school, the writer describes the person’s skills, their personality and why they’re the right fit for the program. This is all so the institution has confirmation of the applicant’s ability to succeed in the program.

If you don’t believe you’re the right fit to write a student’s recommendation, that’s OK, too. You can politely decline and explain to the student why. You can also offer to help them find someone else who’s a more appropriate choice.

Questions to Ask Yourself Before Writing a Letter of Recommendation for Grad School

Once you’ve decided to accept and write the letter of recommendation, take a moment to consider some key questions before you begin crafting your statement.

  • What is your relationship like with this person?
  • What do you think of their work you’ve seen? How would you describe it?
  • What are significant memories you have with them?
  • What qualities or strengths does this person have?
  • What would you specifically want somebody to know about this person?
  • What value would this person bring to this grad school program, and how would they thrive in the field after the program?

What to Ask From Someone Before Writing a Letter of Recommendation

Of course, there is some student information you’ll want to obtain before starting your recommendation. To ensure you’re addressing all the right points and representing them in the best light possible, make sure you ask them the below questions.

The basics. First off, you should find out where this letter is going, to whom it should be addressed, what the deadlines are and how they’d like you to submit it (mail, email, etc.).

Why they want to go to this program and why they are drawn to this school. It’s important to know the motivation behind their graduate school studies: Is it for the love of learning? To get a better job? To switch fields altogether? This will help inform what you write in the letter. Similarly, it’s good to know why a specific school is calling them as well.

Any strengths or qualities they want highlighted. Each person will have different qualities they want you to discuss in their letter of recommendation. If the strengths they mention are ones you agree with and seem relevant to the degree program, definitely include them. You should also ask about what achievements they’ve made that will help them stand out from the crowd of applicants.

Their resume. No one can memorize a person’s entire job and education history. A resume can help remind you of special projects and exemplary work they’ve accomplished in the past, which you can then emphasize in your letter.

What to Include in a Letter of Recommendation for Grad School

There are specific things you should always include in a letter of recommendation for graduate school to make it shine and improve the applicant’s chances of admission.

These are the points that you must undoubtedly touch on throughout your recommendation:

How do you know the applicant? It’s important to describe who you are and how you know the applicant, as well as how long you’ve known them. Personal anecdotes are a must, and they boost your credibility.

Why are they a good fit for the program? Include an explanation for why you think they would specifically thrive in the program. Avoid being vague or general. Dive into why the school would be the perfect fit, and vice versa!

What are their most shining accomplishments? Describe their achievements, especially the ones you’ve personally witnessed. In addition, reference their top strengths and qualities. Again, avoid generalities and use vivid anecdotes.

Can you explain any gaps or discrepancies? A letter of recommendation is often a good time to clear up any troubling parts of the student’s resume or work history — perhaps there was an employment gap or grades dip because they were caring for a sick relative, for example. If you’re aware of any weak spots on their resume from extenuating circumstances, this is the time to note it.

What sets the applicant apart from the rest? Be sure to conclude on a strong note with a very clear, concise recommendation. Highlight what sets them apart from other people, so the program can clearly understand why they should admit this candidate into their college or university.

How to Format and Structure a Graduate School Letter of Recommendation

As for structure, letters of recommendation should not be longer than a page. Start off with a greeting (“Dear [Name]” or “To Whom It May Concern,” if you don’t know the recipient). In the opening paragraph, explain who you are, the nature of your relationship with the student and your overall impression of them.

Within the body of the letter, you can expand on their personality, skills and achievements — along with personal anecdotes — before wrapping up with a final strong and clear recommendation for the applicant.

Then, feel free to add in a polite offer to contact you if they need more information and a formal parting signature. Double-check for spelling and grammar, too, as any mistake could weaken your credibility.

Once you’ve proofread the letter, all you have to do is submit it as instructed and patiently wait for an update from the applicant. Best of luck!

For more information, explore USC Online’s master’s degrees, doctoral programs and graduate certificates.