A 4-Step Process for Obtaining Flawless Letters of Recommendation

4 Steps for Getting Great Letters of Recommendation

Letters of recommendation are more powerful in the graduate school admission process then you might expect. Grades, whether good or bad, don’t tell the whole story about you as a person or about your academic potential, which graduate programs understand. That is where letters of recommendation come in. They provide insight into your strengths, add context to support or contradict your academic metrics, and comment on your ability to succeed in your chosen academic or professional endeavor. We want letters of recommendation to support the claims you are making elsewhere in your application, such as in your personal statement and on your resume. Getting such letters, however, takes an intentional approach.

Here is my recommended 4-step process:

Step 1: Be thoughtful about who you select to ask for a letter

Getting an “A” in someone’s class does not mean you should automatically ask them to be a letter of recommendation writer. Similarly, getting a “C” in someone’s class does not automatically mean you shouldn’t ask that person! Most graduate schools will ask for about three letters of recommendation. You want these letters to provide as close to a 360 view of your strengths as possible. As you consider who is appropriate to ask for a letter of recommendation, think about:

    • How well does this person know me? Have my experiences with them been positive?
    • What perspective will they provide for the admission committee that is valuable?
    • Will they say something meaningful about me that is different from others writing letters?

Step 2: Set up a meeting, phone call or email in which you ask for a letter of recommendation

This can feel intimidating but remember that at an institution like Denison, faculty typically want to help and they field requests like this often. For them, this is a normal Tuesday. When you meet with the potential letter writer, let them know why you are asking them in particular to write a letter. Example: “Because we worked together this summer on research, I feel you can speak to my critical thinking skills and resilience better than anyone”. Remember: letters of recommendation are a privilege, not a right. Understand faculty members may choose to say “no” to your request. To avoid general weirdness, provide the individual with the option of a few days to consider the request. Do not force an immediate decision, but know that they may joyfully give an answer on their own. If that person knows they will be too busy or does not feel able to write you a positive letter, you WANT them to say no. A “No” now is much better than a weak or negative letter later that lowers your chance of admittance.

Step 3: Once an individual accepts your request, set guidelines and provide helpful tools

Yay! The letter writer said yes! I know that feels good. Now there are two important steps necessary for making the letter a smashing success:

    • Agree on a time-frame for completion of the letter. Try to allow a minimum of three weeks for letter writing, and make sure to establish the process for submitting the letter and discuss when/how you can follow-up about the letter (again, we are trying to avoid general awkwardness).
    • Provide them with the tools to write a personalized, excellent letter. Generic letters fade into the background of the admissions process and do not help your chances of admission. A great letter provides positive specifics. To supplement their writing, offer your recommenders a copy of your personal statement and resume, and volunteer to have a conversation with them about your goals if you have not already done so.

Step 4: Follow-up and say “Thank you”

I am a Type-A person, so keeping track of deadlines and tasks is my jam. It is not, sadly, everyone’s jam. A few days before the agreed upon deadline for the letter, email the letter writer with a friendly reminder of the approaching date and the submission process. Once you receive confirmation of a submitted letter, send a “Thank you” note or email to each letter writer. Then, go out and eat as many tacos as you can to celebrate (or drink a healthy smoothie if that is your preference, no judgement).


Authored by Sara Stasko, Associate Director for Graduate School & Pre-Health Advising