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How to get a great letter of recommendation for grad school

August 16, 2021
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Collecting letters of recommendation for grad school can seem like an intimidating task but the key is to be organized. Not only do you need to figure out who to ask but you also need to make sure that what they write is appropriate for the program you’re applying to and that they submit their letter on time.

Follow the tips below to determine who you should ask to write you a recommendation, how to guide your recommenders to create an excellent letter and how to stay organized as you complete this important step of your grad school application.

Who should you ask to write a letter of recommendation?

A good place to start when thinking about who could write a good letter of recommendation for you is to review the instructions or prompt provided by the school you’re applying to in order to determine exactly what is required. Professionals returning to school after several years in the workforce might be worried they don’t have the close academic contacts compared to someone just out of undergrad might, but oftentimes those aren’t necessarily needed.

For example, the online M.S. in Computing program at Marquette indicates that you need three letters “from professors or professionals familiar with your abilities, academic work or professional background.” Think about who you might ask to be a reference when applying for a job. Current or former managers, mentors, or coworkers (especially if they have a title senior to yours or have advanced experience in the field you’d like to pursue) could all make good recommendation letter writers.

Make each letter count

If you’re submitting more than one letter of recommendation for a graduate program, consider how the letters will make an impact individually as well as how each one will contribute to a more complete picture of you as a student and professional. If you’re applying for a master’s in computing, it’s great to have recommendations that explain the hard skills you demonstrate like any previous experience with coding or a content management system, but it would also be beneficial to have someone who can speak to soft skills like collaboration and communication. Remember: your program admissions team wants to know how you will both perform as a student and how you will contribute to the institution’s reputation as an alum.

Even if you’re entering a program as a career changer, you should think about the skills you have and how they could be applied to your desired profession. Are you considered the go-to mentor for training new employees? Do you have a history of adapting to new situations or of successful goal setting? All of these types of skills are helpful for your recommenders to share with an admissions team - especially with examples to back them up.

Making the ask

Once you’ve created a list of your preferred recommendation letter writers, use your judgement to figure out the best way to get in touch with each writer. A phone call or in-person meeting might be the best way to ask a professional contact like a boss or coworker, while an email might be sufficient for a recommendation from a previous professor.

Be prepared to explain to each recommender why you’re choosing to pursue a secondary degree, what attracted you to the program you’re applying to and why you’ve sought out their help to write a letter on your behalf. You also might consider sending a former professor the best papers you completed in their class, or remind a manager about specific projects you worked on to help them recall your contributions.

It’s always good to have a list of more writers in mind than you need. If one of the first people you ask to be a recommender isn’t able to do it make sure you still thank them for considering helping you, but make sure to quickly get in touch with your next choice quickly so they have as much time as possible to complete their letter.

Setting yourself and your writers up for success

Once you’ve decided to apply to graduate programs, consider making yourself a timeline with due dates for finishing different pieces of the application as well as requesting letters of recommendation, checking in on your writers’ progress and following up with thank you notes.

One of the most helpful things you can do for your writers and yourself, is to ask for their help early on in your application process. Writing, especially when it comes to drafting an important document like a letter of recommendation, can be a stressful and involved task for anyone. If you give your writers a good amount of time to work, they’ll be able to do their best for you and you won't have to worry about missing deadlines.

Another way to keep the application process stress-free is to provide each recommendation writer with clear instructions for submission. Review the admissions requirements for the program you’re applying to and write out steps and considerations for your recommenders.

Once they’ve agreed to write your letters, ask them for their preferred email address for you to send a complete list of writing and submission instructions. In this email include either: the mailing addresses or email address where they should submit their letters, instructions if there’s a submission portal for the recommendations, or, if they should expect to be contacted by the institution to submit their letters.

You might also want to include an updated copy of your resume, a link to the program’s website, notes from your conversation and anything else they should know about submission like how you would like them to address the letters (dean of admissions, Mr. or Ms. [Name], etc.).

Wrapping up

A couple weeks out from the deadline, consider sending a follow-up email to your writers with the instructions for submission a final time. Once you’ve confirmed that all your letters have been submitted, write thank you notes or emails to each writer for taking the time to help you out.

Don’t forget to also get in touch with your recommenders to let them know once you’ve been accepted to the program!

Ready to get to work on your IT master’s application?

The M.S. in Computing at Marquette University is designed to suit the needs of both IT professionals looking to boost their career opportunities and career-changers ready for a career in a challenging and in-demand field. Your letters of recommendation, along with your personal statement, are great places to provide more information for our admissions team to find out why you want to pursue the master’s in computing and how it will help you reach your goals. If you’re ready to get started, apply today.