Graduate Education

Requesting Letters of Recommendation for Grad School

Two students dressed in business professional clothes awaiting the Clarkson University annual Career Fair.

If you’re applying to graduate school, you’ll most likely need to include a few letters of recommendation in your application. Gathering these letters can be a source of anxiety for applicants who are unsure whom exactly they should ask to write them and how to go about asking for them. Here are some tips on how, whom and when to ask for grad school recommendations.


When you come to the point in your undergraduate career when you realize you’ll probably want to attend grad school, you should start laying the groundwork for good relationships with professors and other individuals, like employers or internship supervisors, who can serve as useful sources of recommendations. You don’t want to find yourself a few months from application deadlines and realize you should have made more of an effort to form better relationships with your professors. 

Remember, in order to write you a recommendation, your references will need to have some knowledge of your academic and/or research capabilities, career ambitions and character to feel comfortable vouching for you. Which means, you should ask people whom you’ve known for at least six months or more.

Who to Ask.

Many graduate programs ask for up to three letters of recommendation. It is important to read each application’s guidelines for recommendation letters, which can differ from school to school. Academic references are the most common and relevant source of recommendations, since professors and faculty are the most likely to be able to talk about your academic or research capabilities in a particular field. Make sure that whomever you ask for a recommendation is able to talk about skills that relate to the graduate program to which you’re applying.

In some cases, it can be a good idea to get recommendations from a variety of people who are familiar with your different strengths. For instance, you may have a professor who is familiar with your research and academic abilities, but your boss from your internship may be able to attest to the strength of your work ethic and character. Providing letters from both of these individuals could paint a more holistic image of your strengths than two letters from two different professors with whom you’ve done research, for example.

Having three academic references, however, might be more appropriate for someone looking to go into a program with a heavy emphasis on research, such as biology, than say someone looking to enter a graduate degree program in social work. Be sure to check online or ask someone with an advanced degree in the field you’re looking to go into what the norm is for reference types in your field of study, since this can vary by program type.

When to Ask.

It’s a good idea to request your recommendation letter(s) at least six weeks before your application deadline. Keep in mind that busy professors may need more time, so you should consider things like your school’s academic schedule when thinking about the best time to request recommendation letters. This will give the people you are requesting recommendations from plenty of time to write a thoughtful letter without having to cram it into their busy schedule.

Your Part in the Process.

Your prospective references live busy lives and encounter many different people over the course of their career. Chances are, they don’t remember every detail about you. Tell them about the program(s) to which you’re applying and provide them with a folder of materials they’ll need to write you a strong letter of recommendation. You should provide them with the following:

  • Your transcript.
  • Your resume and/or cover letter.
  • A list of graduate schools and programs to which you are applying.
  • Your career goals and ambitions.

That last one is important. Knowing where you’re trying to go and what you’re trying to achieve will help them better highlight your skill set in a way that best suits your goals.

After your letters have been submitted, don’t forget to thank whomever wrote a letter of recommendation for you for their time and effort. And after you receive decisions from the schools you applied to, feel free to share with them your final decision on where you’ll be attending grad school — it’s a nice way to show you appreciate their help in getting into that program.

For more information on Clarkson’s graduate programs or admissions process, contact the Office of Graduate Admissions by emailing or calling (518) 631-9831.

Request Information for Graduate Programs

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