Opinion: How to maximize your letter of recommendation

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As director of admissions for a graduate program, I have read thousands of letters of recommendation. Good letters of recommendation demonstrate that the referee knows you well and is in a position to evaluate your potential to succeed in graduate school. The strongest letters of recommendation provide added value to your application by offering detailed information about your personal qualities, strengths, and experiences, which when combined, make you a great candidate for that particular graduate program. Remembering these simple elements will help you select the best referees, acquire the strongest letters, and keep the whole process running smoothly.

Here are four top tips for securing a stellar letter of recommendation for graduate school.

1. Ask the right people

Most graduate programs will require at least two, if not three, letters of recommendation, giving you an opportunity to choose referees who can speak to the range of your academic strengths and experience. Select referees who know you well enough to provide a meaningful letter of recommendation that includes detailed explanations and specific examples of your personal qualities and experiences. In selecting faculty, be sure to ask someone from whom you have taken at least one class, perhaps more, or who served as your academic or thesis advisor. It is not appropriate to ask family members, friends, or peers at work to write letters of recommendation. The key is to ask people who can offer specific examples of your strengths, in addition to what is included in the application.

2. Make it easy for your referee

The best way to ask a referee for a letter of recommendation is to set an appointment to discuss with them your plans for graduate school. In order to provide your referee ample time, ask at least one month in advance of the application deadline. Avoid asking too close to the deadline — and even better, ask early in the semester, especially for faculty, to allow them to complete your letter before their own end-of-semester deadlines.

During the meeting, ask the faculty or supervisor if they feel they can write you a detailed and meaningful letter of recommendation. If they agree, do not assume that the referee remembers your work well. Ensure that they have all the information at their fingertips in order to write a strong, detailed letter of recommendation by following up after the meeting with one detailed email with all of the pertinent information. This includes:

• Application deadline
• List of program(s) you are applying to, including: link to website, a short summary of the program, and any additional details
• Statement of purpose (a draft is fine)
• CV
• Transcripts
• List of classes you have taken with them, including grades you received, if applicable
• Papers, with comments if possible, you wrote for classes with this faculty member
• Talking points highlighting your strengths, especially if you are trying to provide a range of letters with a different focus in each letter
• Forms or links needed to submit the letter of recommendation

If it is not possible to meet with your referee in person to ask for a letter of recommendation, send your request and all of the above information in one email. That way, should your referee agree to provide the letter, they will not have to wait for another email from you with details in order to get started.

3. Keep it confidential

Always waive your right to see your recommendation letters. A confidential recommendation carries more weight with admissions committees.

4. Follow up

As the application deadline approaches, do not be afraid to gently remind your referee by email about the deadline. Alternately, you may check with the program to inquire if all of your letters of recommendation have been received. Many programs send automatic email confirmations as each letter is received. Always send a thank you to your referees once they have sent the letters. Do not wait for admissions decisions to thank your referees, but do follow up with them once you have received the admissions decisions.

Whether you were admitted to the graduate program or not, it is good practice to maintain channels of communication with your referees. If the news is good, faculty and employers are happy to see their students and employees succeed and to receive the affirmation that they have helped you to move one step closer to your goal of attending graduate school.

The bottom line

Admissions committees look to letters of recommendation for information that may not be found elsewhere within the application, so it’s important to put effort into the process. By keeping these tips in mind, you will have the greatest chance of collecting stellar references who will highlight your strengths and make your application shine.  

You know you need a postgraduate degree to advance in a global development career, but deciding on a program, degree, and specialization can be overwhelming. In partnership with the Association of Professional Schools of International Affairs (APSIA), Duke Center for International Development (DCID) at Duke University, Duke Kunshan University, the Online Master of Public Health (MPH) at George Washington University, and the MPA/ID Program at Harvard Kennedy School, we are digging into all things graduate school and global development in a weeklong series called Grad School Week. Join online events and read more advice on pursuing a postgraduate education here.

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About the author

  • Cheryl%2520bailey%2520duke%2520university

    Cheryl Bailey

    Cheryl Bailey is the assistant director of admissions for Duke University’s mid-career Master of International Development Policy Program at the Duke Center for International Development in the Sanford School of Public Policy. In this role, she manages admissions and recruiting. She has read thousands of files from candidates around the world and brings a solid understanding of what makes a strong application.

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