Reference letters are an important aspect of your graduate school application.
Katie, Dr. H is not amused.
It’s hard to ask faculty for reference letters. You are literally asking them to say nice things about you, on paper, and then submit this nice note to strangers for review. And your future seems to kind of depend on what they say.
There is a right way to do it.
How should I ask for a letter?
Make it easy for yourself and your recommenders. Send an email to your intended letter writer that includes the following information:
- What you are asking for, including where you are applying and why
- How they know you (including full name and course titles, if applicable)
- Deadline for submission (send EARLY!)
- Please and Thank You
- Any materials (resume, personal statement, etc.) that the letter writer might need to review before writing
Use your judgement to tailor your request to specific faculty, but those are the basics. If you know someone really, really well, you might not need to offer a lot of specifics about how they know you. But it is still helpful to tell them why you are asking for the letter–what story can they tell about you that will help convince an admissions committee that you will be an awesome grad student?
Once someone has agreed to write for you, make a note to send them at least one polite reminder of the specific deadline. In this reminder, you should restate any information you provided previously, inquire as to whether they have any questions, and take the opportunity to thank them again for helping you with your application.
When should I ask for a letter?
Most faculty will want at least 2-3 weeks to complete a letter. Some might need longer. If you are applying to the chemistry graduate program at Emory, you can submit requests for letters as early as September(when our application goes live) and we will pair them with your application as they arrive.
You will generally need to indicate the contact information (title, email) of your letter writers to submit your application. Some schools will also require a physical mailing address–even if the application is entirely online! You will want to make sure your writers already know that you’re listing them when you fill out this information, even if they plan to submit the letter at a later date.
Emory (and most other schools) will send your writers a direct request for their letter via email to keep the resulting correspondence confidential.
Should I waive my right to review my letter?
One thing that can confuse applicants is whether or not they should waive their right to review their reference letters.
It is your legal right to review letters submitted on your behalf. Graduate schools give students the opportunity to waive this right to help ensure that faculty feel comfortable writing a thorough and honest letter. Even if faculty have nothing but nice things to say, they may not want you to be looking over their shoulder!
Generally, admissions representatives might assume that letters will be more honest and comprehensive when a student waives their right of review, so it is a good idea to do this if you feel comfortable. Faculty might also disclose statistics related to OTHER students (such as your grade compared to others or a class ranking) in a confidential letter that they could not include in a letter that you would have access to in order to protect student privacy.
Who should I ask for letters?
In terms of who to ask for letters, the key criteria is to choose people who know you well. This might include:
- instructors from college courses
- research supervisors
- internship supervisors
- academic advisors
Generally, each letter should come from someone who interacted with you in college (not earlier). For students applying to graduate school after being in the workforce, letters from people familiar with your college or work experience might make sense. It will still be helpful to have one or more letters from someone who knows your work in an academic context.
Letters from friends, neighbors, and family are not useful (in the rare case that you were taught or supervised by someone in one of these categories, the letter should address these unique circumstances.)
It’s helpful if letters can speak to your chemistry experience–three letters from non-chemistry professors might make it difficult for us to get a full picture of your preparation. Finally, keep in mind that it’s important to ask for letters from someone in a leadership role–a letter from your research supervisor is more appropriate than a letter from the graduate student who trained you on an instrument. If that graduate student really does know your work, you might ask them if it is okay to include them as a reference when you send that polite email to your P.I. to ask for the letter. For instance: “I worked closely with NAME on PROJECT and they are willing to provide you with details about my progress.”
Can I ask my letter writer to talk about something specific?
It is entirely appropriate to let your writer letter know why you are asking them to write for you. This doesn’t mean you can dictate the text of the letter. However, even a professor who knows you very well might appreciate a reminder of what is unique about your work together.
Here’s an example:
“I would really appreciate it if you could talk a bit about my work with you learning to use NMR as a research tool. This was a significant experience for me. In particular, I appreciated your support in helping me through some of the difficulties I had with this training. Last semester, I was able to complete NMR analysis for my independent thesis project thanks to this experience!”
What does this example do?
- Asks the writer to address something specific
- Tells them why it’s important to you
- Identifies the specific role/importance of the writer’s contribution
- Informs the letter writer of relevant progress they may not know about
What if someone writes me a negative letter?
It is generally considered a best practice for college faculty to decline to write a letter if they cannot be positive. This doesn’t mean that letters can’t provide real critique, but if a faculty member does not feel you are prepared for graduate school or actually didn’t enjoy working with you, custom dictates that they would decline to write a letter for you rather than sending a negative reference.
This is a CUSTOM not a RULE.
If you are in doubt as to whether a letter will be positive, you should have a professional conversation with your possible referee to ask if they would be willing to write you a supportive letter. If not, thank them for their time and, if you are comfortable, ask them for their advice on how you might improve your work so that they will feel comfortable writing for you in future.
How will I know if confidential letters are submitted?
Some schools will allow you to view your completed application and its status online. Emory is unfortunately not one of these schools. You will be able to confirm that you have successfully submitted contact information for your letter writers, but you will not receive notification when the letters are actually submitted.
To account for this, we contact students directly if one of their letters is missing following the application deadline. For this reason, we ask that all components of your application be submitted by the deadline, including letters. Some schools have a separate deadline for letters and/or test scores. No matter how the school you are applying to manages materials, it is always a best practice to submit complete and accurate materials as early as possible.
If you have reason to believe a letter was not submitted due to technical difficulties or a lack of communicaton from a previously confirmed letter writer, it may make sense to contact the program for assistance. But there is generally no need to confirm receipt of your letters if you have followed all of the steps above, including reminding your writers of each deadline for which they have agreed to write.
Reference letters are a key component of your application. Request them early and thoughtfully. For the chemistry graduate program at Emory, we require three letters and allow up to four.
- University Affairs: How to Ask for a Reference Letter
- Berkeley Career Center Reference Letter FAQs
- NerdWallet: 5 Steps to Getting a Killer Graduate School Recommendation Letter
- Chronicle of Higher Education: How to Ask for a Recommendation Letter
- The Professor Is In: How to Write a Recommendation Letter