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Requesting a letter of recommendation for graduate school

March 13, 2024

At least one admissions expert has called the letter of recommendation a “third dimension” that goes beyond your college transcripts and can set you apart from your peers.1 While your resume and personal statement give an admissions committee insight into your background and your goals, a graduate school recommendation letter offers a glimpse of how others see you.

Whether you are about to finish your undergraduate degree or have spent a few years in the workforce, letters of recommendation can feel like yet another hurdle to overcome. By planning ahead, you can reduce stress and ensure you get letters in advance of the application deadline. Focus on identifying the right letter writers—individuals who can write well and can address your academic and personal strengths. By compiling a list of potential recommenders, you can start doing outreach.

In this post, we cover tips for choosing recommenders, what type of information can facilitate a strong and persuasive letter and how to maintain a connection with them.

Importance of personal connection

When deciding on your top recommenders, choose individuals who know you well. They should also be able to speak to your strengths and accomplishments as well as why you would be a great addition to their counseling program. Most graduate programs are interested in your character, work ethic, and interpersonal skills. Ideally, choose current or past professors, colleagues and managers from volunteer experiences who can address these elements in detail.

The longer a recommender knows you, the better story they will be able to tell. Such personal connections enable them to paint a vivid and compelling portrait of you as a grad school applicant. For instance, a recommender who has observed an applicant’s dedication to community service or their ability to develop leaders as a manager. These examples can provide powerful anecdotes that go beyond the resume and leave a lasting impression.

Choosing appropriate recommenders

Admissions experts say the strongest letters are “descriptive, personal and complement the application.”1 Develop a wish list of your top letter writers, which could include professors, colleagues, or supervisors. Each individual might address a different facet of your capabilities and experience, but their insights should align with your chosen field of study. For example, if you’re applying to a counseling program, then a math teacher might not be the best choice. If you need to address a challenging situation, such as low grades during one semester or an otherwise stellar academic record, choose a college advisor.

Some applicants mistakenly think that status or fame makes for more credible recommenders, but what truly matters is their ability to provide meaningful and specific insights. Identify individuals who can speak to your past achievements as well as potential for future success in the chosen field. Maybe you’re a combat veteran who has excelled in business and volunteered with a veterans organization.2 But you’ve decided to become a counselor specializing in PTSD treatment for veterans. An ideal recommender could be a manager of volunteer experiences who is familiar with your career journey.

Timing and consideration

Graduate programs often require two to three letters, so allow enough time to re-establish connections with your potential recommenders. Create a timeline for securing recommendations from your top choices and determine the best method for communicating. A phone call or in-person meeting might be more effective if some time has elapsed before your last contact with your letter writer. If email is the preferred outreach method, you can adapt email templates to craft considerate and professional emails.

Chances are your potential recommenders work full-time and have families and other personal commitments. Don’t sabotage yourself by sending last-minute requests—not only do they inconvenience recommenders but also risk compromising the quality of recommendation letters. In addition, proactively communicate early and often, so they know exactly what to expect from the submission process. Some grad schools may make the recommendation requests via email directly to your recommenders. The last thing you want is to get rejected because the university’s request ended up in their spam folder. That leads us to the next tip.

Providing adequate information

Collaborating with your recommenders enhances the likelihood of a well-rounded and tailored recommendation letter. Start by briefing recommenders on your goals, target programs and specific skills or experiences. If you’ve chosen a former professor, you might want to attach a course project or artifact to remind them of your key achievements and interests. This proactive approach ensures that recommenders can write persuasively about your ability to succeed in graduate studies at a specific school.

Use this checklist to ensure your recommenders have what they need to write memorable letters:3

  • Program description: Did you provide details about the program, such as its focus, goals and requirements?
  • Specific anecdotes: What achievements or relevant experiences do you want the letter writer to include?
  • Your personal statement: Does your letter writer understand your motivations for pursuing graduate study? Share your personal statement, so they know your long-term goals and reasons for applying to a specific graduate program
  • Your accomplishments: Your letter writer should be familiar with the skills and unique experiences that make you an excellent candidate for the program, but it doesn’t hurt to remind them
  • Submission details: Does your letter write have the essentials? If not, provide the submission deadline, formatting requirements and instructions on how to submit the letter (e.g., online portal, email, or stamped letter)

Acknowledging the recommender’s efforts

Recognizing the invaluable contributions of those who write your letters of recommendation is crucial for prospective graduate students. After requesting a recommendation, promptly follow up with a personal thank-you note, outlining how their support helped you. During the application process, inform recommenders about your progress and outcomes, allowing them to share in your successes. Once you start graduate school, remember the individuals who helped you get there. Maintain these connections—they can lead to mentorship opportunities, career advice and a support network in graduate school and beyond.

The role of recommenders in specific programs

Different graduate programs may have unique requirements for recommendation letters. For the online master’s in clinical mental health counseling at Marquette University, we make it convenient for references to submit letters through our online platform. We ask for references to address how you will be successful in a graduate program, why you are suited for the counseling profession, and what they feel are your personal strengths and limitations.

Be a counselor with expertise that matters

When you apply to the CACREP-accredited online master’s in clinical mental health counseling at Marquette University, you will join a program dedicated to preparing the next generation of counselors and community advocates. Here, you will develop a foundation in the biological, psychological, social and cultural lenses that impact their approach to counseling. You can choose to pursue an additional child and adolescent counseling specialization to help transform the lives of young people and their families.

By preparing students to work with diverse groups and communities, we are setting students up for impactful careers, so our curriculum emphasizes how counselors can be advocates for mental health care and underserved communities. Learn more about how our program prepares you for your exam and your career, and start your application today.