The Letter of Recommendation: Why you need it, how to get one and guidelines for getting a good letter

Written by our undergraduate student interns: Morgan Cook and Tasawar Shayan

By: Morgan Cook and Tasawar Shayan

“When she was applying for graduate programs, she was an active undergraduate researcher but had mediocre GRE scores and a 3.5 GPA, with a few Cs in her science classes. Now she’s an established professor.” This quote comes from the article “Student performance measures that don’t perform”, specifically about Dr. Leslie Vosshall. If these things are true, how was Dr. Vosshall accepted into graduate school? Her letters of recommendation. So, what makes a letter of recommendation so important compared to the rest?

Why do schools ask for letters of recommendation? There are a lot of components to a graduate school application, such as GPA (grade point average), test results, personal statements, letters of recommendation, and more. But why can they not accept you just based on test scores and undergraduate grades? According to a study, GPA and GRE scores are ineffective in predicting performance in graduate school, but “qualitative assessments by previous mentors are more likely to identify students who will succeed”.

How to get a recommendation letter

Most graduate programs require at least two, more commonly three, recommendation letters. Most students find choosing professionals to write recommendations difficult. For applications to graduate school, previous faculty members or course instructor are most recommended. However, you can also consider administrators, internship/co-operative education supervisors, and employers. The people you ask to write your recommendation letters should:

  • Know you well
  • Know your work
  • Describe your work positively
  • Have a high opinion of you
  • Know where you are applying
  • Know your educational and career goals

Keep in mind that no one person will satisfy all of these criteria. Aim for a set of recommendation letters that cover the range of your skills. Ideally, letters should cover your academic and scholastic skills, research abilities and experiences, and applied experiences (e.g., co-operative education, internships, related work experience.

When asking for a letter of recommendation, be mindful of the time commitment needed and provide all the information needed. You can offer to meet in person, or provide the materials needed via email.  In your correspondence, explain your plans for graduate school and talk a bit about why you are asking them to write the letter.

The best thing that you can do to ensure that your recommendation letters cover all the bases is to provide your referees with all the necessary information. Don’t assume that they will remember everything about you. For example, they might remember that a student is exceptional and an excellent participant in class, but may not remember all of the details such as, how many classes the student took or extracurricular interests (such as being active in the psychology honors society, for example).

It is also a good idea to highlight what you want the letter to cover. You can provide a few bullet points that include the contact information to whom the letter should be sent, classes taken and dates of those classes, strengths, relevant activities, and another other points you prefer them to write about. You can also provide a file with all of your background information:

  • Transcript
  • Resume or curriculum vitae
  • Admissions essays
  • Courses you’ve taken with them
  • Research experience
  • Internships and other applied experiences
  • List of programs to which you are applying (and have them send email requests for recommendations early, well before the deadline)

What makes a good letter? Your letters of recommendation are essential to your application, so making sure that you have a good letter is very important. North Carolina State University has even posted guidelines on letters of recommendation for graduate school. It is important that whoever is writing your letters follows your schools guidelines. Remember that it is alright to give them instructions on writing your letter! Good letters will highlight your skills and traits that pertain to the program you are applying to and they should speak highly of you and your ability to thrive in the future. You want them to really enforce the idea that you are the right fit for graduate school, beyond just what your grades and test scores say.

Click here for additional resources to make sure your letters of recommendation are the best they can be.