Requesting Letters of Recommendationlor

As noted in the application qualifications and admissions criteria section of this website, recommendation letters are a very important part of the selection process in most graduate programs.  It is common for most graduate programs to request around 3 letters, and in many cases letter writers also have to fill out a ratings form.  Letters of recommendation can help determine whether an applicant is invited for an interview or is ultimately accepted.  Accordingly, it is crucial that applicants carefully decide on the persons that they will request letters from, make the request in an organized, courteous, and effective manner, provide sufficient time and resources for recommenders to write effective letters, and have backup letter writers.  Here we discuss all of those aspects of the recommendation letter process.   

Note: although this page is tailored towards requesting letters for graduate program applications, the guidelines discussed here can be adapted towards many different types of recommendation letters, such as those for scholarships, fellowships, and job applications.

Get to Know Your Professors First

Your recommenders need to know you well in order to write you a strong recommendation letter.  If their only knowledge of you is via your attendance and performance in a large class, then your recommenders will likely have little to say other than generic comments about your academic ability.  Thus, try to interact with your professors more closely: ask questions, attend office hours, and if you can, ask about (and get involved in) research opportunities.  In return, you may receive helpful advice, career guidance, and other benefits of mentorship.  Moreover, as you get to know your professors, they get to know you.  That knowledge can translate into excellent recommendation letters -- that is, enthusiastic letters that include positive personal details and help you stand out to admissions committees.

Who Should Write Your Letters 

With letters of recommendation, admissions committees are seeking information that your GPA, GRE, and statement of purpose cannot provide – namely further details about you, the individual, from an outside source.  Overall, they want to obtain a personal testimonial from another person, and on the basis of that testimonial, gauge whether you are a suitable candidate for their graduate program or not.  Accordingly, you should carefully think about your recommenders and ideally ask professors that can write about your positive characteristics and potential as a psychologist (or the profession you are interested in graduate study regarding).  Suggestions for effective recommenders include:1,2

  • Research mentors with whom you have done substantial work
  • Professors that have gotten to know you over a substantial period of time
  • Professors that taught you in relevant upper-division courses in which you performed well and got to know you well during or outside the course
  • Employers in a job that is relevant to your intended field of graduate study (i.e., clinical programs)

Letters ideally should not come from relatives, pastors, politicians, therapists, or instructors that know little of you, the individual, outside of your performance in a single class.1  Having letters from inappropriate sources (for example, one’s mother) can be detrimental to your application.  It can however be appropriate to request letters of recommendation from professors outside of psychology, provided that they can address your potential for a psychology graduate program and if not all of your recommenders are outside the field of the program that you are applying to.


Recommendation Letter Content and Ratings Forms

Good letter writers should be able to comment about your positive characteristics and back those comments with specific examples.  Some areas that recommenders should be able to address include (Note: this is not a comprehensive list):1,2

  • Your academic ability, communication skills, and research skills
  • Your likelihood of succeeding in graduate study
  • Your leadership and interpersonal skills
  • Your teaching potential or experience
  • Your ability to work independently or as part of a team
  • Your ability to adapt to challenges
  • Your character and integrity

It is common for recommenders to also have to fill out a ratings form.  This form is typically accessible only by the recommender, and may include questions such as:

  • I give this applicant my strongest recommendation/a high recommendation/a recommendation/a recommendation with reservation/not recommended
  • Of the students I have taught, this applicant ranks in the top 1%/5%/10%/30%/50%

There may be many other ratings that recommenders are asked to provide, and these vary according to the characteristics that each program’s admissions committee values.


Suggestions for Requesting Letters 

The process of requesting a letter of recommendation can be critical in how well that letter benefits your graduate applications.  Here is a recommended strategy for requesting letters: 1,2

1. Make your request at least six weeks prior to the deadline.

Letter writers need sufficient time to draft an effective letter.  Moreover, requests made too close to the deadline may be refused.  It is common for requests to be made over email with a follow-up visit in person to discuss your background and graduate school plans. 

2. Do not assume that they will automatically agree to write.

It is generally inappropriate to send the recommendation forms or links in your initial contact under the assumption that they will agree to write.  First, the prospective letter writer must specifically state to you that they are willing and able to write.  Your initial contact should be a request, not an assignment.

3. Specifically ask whether they can write a “good letter” or “strong letter” of recommendation.

This will make clear that you are requesting a letter, plus gauges whether the letter that will be written will strengthen your application (the writer will or will not agree to write a good letter, not just a letter). 

4. Waive your right to view the letter.

Confidential letters tend to be viewed more favorably than those that the applicant was able to view (that is, they are regarded as having greater candor).

5. Provide all necessary background materials.

Providing transcripts, statements of purpose, and resume/CVs are common.  You may also need to refresh the recommender’s memory about the classes you took with them and what grades you received, when you first got to know the recommender, and more.  Typically, you should wait until the recommender has agreed to write before providing all background information.

6. Do all preparatory work short of writing the letter.

Ideally, all the recommender has to do is write the letter, tailor it to each program that you are applying to, and submit.  If you have collected all the relevant information in one place, and provided it to the recommender, then that saves them from having to do all that extra work – freeing them to focus solely on writing an excellent letter.  Preparatory work to do includes:

  • If you are asking recommenders to write for multiple applications, then create a spreadsheet, table, or list of all the programs that you are applying to, their deadlines, and any relevant links.
  • If different programs are seeking specific information, collect and provide that information.
  • If the letters need to be mailed, then provide envelopes with addresses filled in and stamps.

7. Request all of your letters at one time.

Although many graduate programs have different application due dates, it is helpful to make all of your letter requests at one time and provide all of the necessary information at that time.  This includes sending electronic letter submission links at one time (thus making it easy for writers to locate all the links).  Making multiple requests across different weeks appears disorganized, often leads to confusion, and can annoy recommenders. 

8. Followup in a courteous and organized manner.

Most application letter portals let you check if the letter has been received.  As deadlines approach, consider sending a polite reminder at reasonable intervals (such as two weeks and one week before the letter is due).  Avoid badgering letter writers; professors are often overworked and extremely busy, and it is common for letters to be submitted very close to the deadline (however, you should verify in advance that the recommender hasn’t forgotten and is indeed able to provide a letter). 

9. Thank your letter writers.

It is a nice gesture to express your appreciation after they have submitted letters on your behalf.  Moreover, you may need to ask your recommenders for additional letters in the future, and thus it is wise to keep good relations with them.


Backup Letter Writers 

On average, you will be asked to provide three letters of recommendation.  Thus, at minimum, you will have to request letters from three individuals.  However, it is highly advisable to have at least one backup letter writer.  It is not unheard of for busy professors to forget letter deadlines, have unexpected absences, or even back out of letter writing commitments.  In such cases, you might not be able to secure a new recommender on short notice.  Thus, requesting another individual—someone who will be available around the application deadline—to be prepared to provide a backup letter is a good strategy.


Workshops and Downloadable Resources

Workshops

  • For in-person discussion of the process of applying to graduate programs in psychology, neuroscience, and related fields, please consider attending this department’s “Paths to PhDs” workshop and other related events (for dates and times, please check the undergraduate workshops calendar).

Downloads

  • Tips for Applying to Graduate Programs in Psychology (a brief summary) [PDF]

Further Resources

How-To Videos     

Recommended Reading

APA Videos on Graduate Applications

Further Resources


References

 
Norcross, J. C., & Hogan, T. P. (2016).  Preparing and applying for graduate school in psychology: 12 modules. American Psychological Association [video workshop].
American Psychological Association (2007).  Getting in: a step-by-step plan for gaining admission to graduate school in psychology
 
Prepared by S. C. Pan for UCSD Psychology