By Amy Than
One of the critical stages of applying to graduate programs, research positions, fellowships, and beyond is asking for letters of recommendation (LORs). LORs are used by hiring managers or admissions committees to screen for academic potential, validity of self-reported experiences, compatibility with institutional values, eligibility for scholarships, and even potential red flags (Madera, 2019). While other materials such as academic transcripts and resumes are provided by the applicant, LORs are provided by a recommender on behalf of the applicant. The confidentiality of LORs make them heavily considered during the earlier stages during which admissions committees make decisions for campus visit invitations. Although LORs have been found to reflect biases that disadvantage underrepresented students, they remain among the most requested materials for applications in higher education (Kuncel 2014, Akos, 2016). Their weight is undeniable in a student’s application. So, how can you strategize a LOR request? Even if they are submitted confidentially, there are several things you can do to secure a strong LOR that compensates for implicit biases. The goal is to set your recommenders up to write a LOR that endorses your potential for success.
To start us off, here is a general timeline for requesting LORs, followed by strategies and tips for making requests:
Secure your letters early.
Start thinking of who you would like to write your LORs as soon as you decide to begin the application process. This extra time will ensure you can cultivate connections in your network and naturally request LORs in time for the deadline. Also, keep in mind how many letters are required and what types of recommenders are preferred by the admissions committee. For example, you may be asked to provide one letter from a STEM professor and one from a non-STEM professor, or from two STEM professors. LOR requests should be made at least 3 weeks before the submission deadline. But, the sooner you ask, the better! Giving writers an early heads-up will allow them to pay attention to your strengths and provide thoughtful comments on your work.
Choose someone with professional authority, and who knows you well.
Make a short list of people who can endorse your work ethic, character, and relevant skills. This can be a supervisor, professor, manager, club advisor, academic counselor, or professional mentor who would speak positively about you.
Your ideal recommender is someone who:
- Knows the value of higher education or has achieved it themselves
- Is enthusiastic to support you and has confidence in your application
- Is reliable and punctual, so you do not have to spend much time following up
- Has experience writing LORs with a good track record of successful admits
- Knows you well
- Is not a family member or significant other
If your short list is too short for your comfort, repeat after us: I will find someone, and everything will be fine! Although the best endorsements come from people who know you well and will share anecdotes of their professional experience with you, the very bare minimum is that that they simply know you well enough to write a strong letter. Start with someone who can verify the work you have done. This may include professors who taught a class in which you did well or showed great improvement, collaborators on a project, and staff at the facilities you used (i.e., directors of the microscopy core, neuroimaging suite, animal husbandry unit). If they have professional authority—meaning they hold a credible job title—their endorsement is just as valid as one written by a long-term mentor.
However, one important thing to note when requesting letters from people who you have not established long professional relationships with is the risk of getting “boiler plate” letters. These are LORs that are short, generic, and re-used for many students over many application cycles. To avoid this, be direct in your initial request and ask if the recommender would feel comfortable with writing “a tailored letter that will strengthen your application.”
Here is a sample LOR request that can be sent over email but is best made in person:
It has been a pleasure working with you in [lab or course name]. I am in the process of applying for admission to [program name] program(s). Part of the application requires a letter of recommendation from someone who can elaborate on my skills and achievements. Would you feel comfortable writing a tailored letter that to strengthen my application? The deadline for submitting the letter is [due date]. I would be happy to provide my application and additional information to help you write a detailed letter. Thank you in advance for your time and efforts on my behalf.
Provide talking points.
If you read our article on Why Cover Letters are More Than Just Fan Fiction for Your Next Job, you know that to narrativize your professional journey is to persuade the reader that you are the perfect fit for the job. The same applies to writing LORs, despite the task being in the hands of your recommender. If your recommender is not familiar with the process, set them up for success by emphasizing the importance of depth, details, and anecdotes to endorse your contributions to their work. To ensure that they highlight specific experiences, provide the following pieces of information:
- Resume or CV.
- Application materials. This could include your statement of purpose, personal statement, and/or research statement for one of your applications. It is completely fine if your application materials aren’t in final form! If you’re nearing the deadline, send just your resume or CV first. Your recommender can write the LOR as you finish your application.
- Set of talking points. In the body of the email that you send these materials, briefly highlight the academic or work experiences that you’d like the recommender to mention in their LOR. Provide details of your current role and the experiences that have prepared you for graduate school. You may also want to remind them of any moments when you solved problems or showcased good work ethic. This is particularly helpful for recommenders who may not know the specifics of your work or need a refresher. However, do not explicitly tell them what to say—you want your recommender’s voice and authenticity to lead. Especially if you have more than one recommender, provide a tailored set of talking points for each person to prevent any repetitive information.
For example, a student that worked on a summer research project could send the following email to the Principal Investigator:
“Dear [Principal Investigator],
Thank you again for agreeing to submit a letter of recommendation for my application to the [program name] program at [[school 1], [school 2], [school3],…]. To note, letters of recommendations are due on [date]. I have attached my application materials for your reference and would appreciate it if you could highlight my contribution to the lab in [year] and the project that aimed to [research hypothesis]. Through this project, I gained experience in [technique1] and [technique2] and found [results, if applicable]. I hope to pursue graduate school to study [research interest] and am excited to bring all that I have learned in your lab. Please let me know if you have any questions.
And a student who did well in a course that is relevant to their research field could send a similarly structured email to their former Professor:
Thank you again for agreeing to submit a letter of recommendation for my application to the [program name] program at [[school 1], [school 2], [school3],…]. To note, letters of recommendations are due on [date]. I have attached my application materials for your reference and would appreciate it if you could highlight my participation and academic performance in your [course name] class during the [academic term] of [academic year]. A few topics that were of particular interest to me include [topic1] and [topic2] which aligns with my interests in [research topic]. Completing the [project/assignment] for this course pushed me to grow as a student by [reason]. I hope to pursue graduate school to study [research interest] and am excited to bring all that I have learned from your course. Please let me know if you have any questions.
Asking for a LOR from a professor or mentor is a cause of stress for many students. If you are any bit hesitant about asking someone to write a LOR on your behalf, take a breath and remind yourself of two things: 1. Writing letters of recommendation is a part of their job, and 2. The worst they can say is no and, in that case, you could ask them to introduce you to people in their network or begin looking for opportunities to establish new professional relationships through internships, assistantships, part-time jobs, shadowing, or volunteering.
Writing your own LOR.
What if your recommender replies to your request for a LOR, “Sure, I’d be happy to help. Please write a draft, and I will review and sign off on it”? This is not an ideal scenario because striking a balance between showcasing yourself in the best light while coming off as an unbiased person of authority is no easy task. However, this happens quite often. Writing your own LOR is arguably a positive if you look at it this way: You will be in control of your own evaluation. After all, no one knows what you have achieved better than yourself.
We at Knowing Neurons hope that this article on how to strategize your request for LORs is helpful in providing resources to prepare a stellar application. Good luck!
Written by Amy Than
Edited by Carolyn Amir and Lauren Wagner
Illustrated by Vidya Saravanapandian
Akos P, Kretchmar J. GENDER AND ETHNIC BIAS IN LETTERS OF RECOMMENDATION: CONSIDERATIONS FOR SCHOOL COUNSELORS. doi:10.5330/1096-2409-20.1.102
Kuncel NR, Kochevar RJ, Ones DS. A Meta-analysis of Letters of Recommendation in College and Graduate Admissions: Reasons for hope. International Journal of Selection and Assessment. 2014;22(1):101-107. doi:10.1111/IJSA.12060
Madera JM, Hebl MR, Dial H, Martin R, Valian V. Raising Doubt in Letters of Recommendation for Academia: Gender Differences and Their Impact. J Bus Psychol. 2019;34(3):287-303. doi:10.1007/S10869-018-9541-1/TABLES/6