The Art of Graduate Studies Recommendation Letters: A Comprehensive Guide for Success for Graduate School

One of the most important aspects of getting into grad school is submitting well-crafted letters of recommendation.

These letters, written by professors or other professionals who have worked with you closely, serve as a testament to your:

  • academic abilities,
  • personal qualities,
  • and potential for success in advanced studies.

The graduate admissions committee puts significant value on recommendation letters, as they can provide insight into your work ethic, communication skills, and overall fit for the program.

A lot of the time in academia it is who you know rather than what you know!

Crafting an exceptional graduate school letter of recommendation can be a challenging task, both for applicants seeking recommendations and for the recommenders themselves.

Some courses ask for up to three letters of recommendation so you’ll have to approach your favourite professors and ask for letters of recommendation a long time before the submission deadline. 

However, with attention to detail and some tips and tricks, it’s possible to create compelling and effective letters that will help you stand out in the competitive world of graduate school admissions.

Who should write a recommendation letter for graduate school?

A recommendation letter for graduate school is a document that outlines a student’s academic and personal accomplishments and is written by someone who knows the student well.

Think of a professor who you have a good relationship with or a lecturer that has noticed your extra effort and capability. 

The recommender could be:

  1. a former or current teacher,
  2. professor,
  3. employer,
  4.  or supervisor.

It’s essential to choose a person who can write a recommendation that highlights your abilities and accomplishments.

Therefore, when choosing which professors to ask, try to select someone who has had a significant impact on your academic development or involved in research, clubs, or other activities in which you participated.

The quality of your graduate school recommendation letter will play a critical role in your acceptance, so it’s essential to carefully choose who writes it.

Take some time thinking about the best person. Here are some tips that may help you decide.

Who should write your letters of recommendation for graduate school?

When applying for graduate school, it is important to carefully consider who should write your letters of recommendation.

Ideally, your recommendation letter writers should be faculty members, research supervisors, or professional colleagues in your field who can provide specific examples of your achievements and skills.

It is important to choose individuals who can provide a comprehensive picture of your strengths and potential, rather than simply listing your accomplishments.

Here is what I would consider when choosing who should write your letter of recommendation:

Relationship with the personChoose someone who knows you well, preferably in an academic or professional capacity, and can speak to your strengths and achievements.
Relevance to the programSelect a person who is familiar with the field you are applying to and can address your qualifications and potential in that area.
Position and expertiseOpt for someone with a strong reputation in their field or a high-ranking position, as their recommendation may carry more weight.
Writing and communication skillsEnsure the person you choose can effectively articulate your strengths and accomplishments in a well-written and persuasive manner.
Timeliness and availabilityConfirm that the person you choose is available and willing to write the letter of recommendation within the required timeframe.
Enthusiasm for your candidacyPick someone who is genuinely enthusiastic about your potential and will provide a strong, positive endorsement for your application.

The quality of your letters of recommendation can greatly impact your admission to graduate school, so choose your letter writers carefully and provide them with ample time and information to compose strong recommendations that will enhance your graduate school application.

How to ask for a Letter of Recommendation for Graduate School

The best way to ask for a letter of recommendation is by sending an email politely requesting the recommenders’ assistance after you have spoken to them in person requesting the letter of recommendation.

Here are some templates that you can use to

Email 1 Template:

Subject: Request for Recommendation for [Your Name] – [Program Name]

Dear Professor [Last Name],

I hope this email finds you well. My name is [Your Name], and I am currently a [Your Status, e.g., final-year undergraduate/graduate student] majoring in [Your Major] at [Your University]. I am writing to kindly request your support in providing a recommendation letter for my application to the [Program Name] at [University Name]. Your expertise and guidance during my time in your [Course Name/Research Project] have been invaluable, and I believe that your recommendation would greatly strengthen my application.

The [Program Name] at [University Name] is an excellent fit for my academic and career goals, as it offers the opportunity to specialize in [Specific Area of Study/Research Interest], which aligns with my interests and ambitions. I am particularly excited about [a specific aspect of the program or a professor’s work that you admire].

If you agree to write a recommendation letter on my behalf, please let me know if you require any additional information, such as my CV, transcript, or a draft of my statement of purpose. The deadline for the submission of the recommendation letter is [Submission Deadline]. I understand that you have a busy schedule, and I greatly appreciate your time and consideration in supporting my application.

Thank you once again for your guidance and mentorship during my time in your [Course Name/Research Project]. I look forward to the possibility of your recommendation and to hearing your thoughts on my application.


[Your Full Name]

[Your Email Address]

 [Your Phone Number]

Email 2 follow-up template:

Subject: Reminder: Recommendation Letter for [Your Name] – [Program Name]

Dear Professor [Last Name],

I wanted to follow up on my earlier request for a recommendation letter for my application to the [Program Name] at [University Name]. I understand that you have a busy schedule, and I appreciate your time and effort in considering my request.

As a gentle reminder, the submission deadline for the recommendation letter is [Submission Deadline]. If you have any questions or require further information, such as my CV, transcript, or a draft of my statement of purpose, please do not hesitate to let me know. If for any reason you are unable to provide a recommendation, please let me know at your earliest convenience so that I can make alternative arrangements.

Thank you once again for your support and guidance during my time in your [Course Name/Research Project]. Your recommendation would significantly strengthen my application, and I am grateful for your consideration.

Best regards,

[Your Full Name]

[Your Email Address]

[Your Phone Number]

Make sure to give them enough time to write the letter, preferably several weeks in advance.

When asking for a letter, provide the recommender with as much information as possible about the graduate school and the program you wish to attend.

This can make it easier for them to write a recommendation that’s relevant and highlights your potential.

Here is what you can ask of the person that is writing your letter of recommendation:

What to Ask From Someone Before Writing a Letter of Recommendation

When asking someone to write a letter of recommendation it’s essential to provide them with a few pointers and highlights to ensure that they can write an effective letter.

First, provide the person with your resume or CV, so they can gain a better understanding of your academic and professional achievements. Next, share your career goals and explain how the program you are applying for will help you achieve those goals.

Here are some things that you can provide them to help them craft the strongest letter of recommendation for you.

  • Your resume or CV: This will give the writer an overview of your academic and professional achievements, as well as any relevant extracurricular activities or awards.
  • A description of the program: Provide information about the graduate program or job you are applying for, including its focus, goals, and any specific requirements.
  • Your statement of purpose or personal statement: Sharing your statement will help the writer understand your motivations for pursuing the program and your long-term goals.
  • A list of your key strengths and accomplishments: Highlight the specific skills, experiences, and qualities that you believe make you an excellent candidate for the program.
  • Any specific examples or anecdotes: Share any relevant experiences or achievements that you would like the writer to include in their letter to illustrate your qualifications.
  • Your relationship with the writer: Remind the writer of your relationship, how long you have known each other, and any significant interactions or projects you have worked on together.
  • Submission details: Provide the writer with the submission deadline, any specific formatting requirements, and instructions on how to submit the letter (e.g., online portal, email, or physical mail).
  • Any additional materials: If required or relevant, provide supplementary materials such as transcripts, writing samples, or portfolios that can support the writer’s assessment of your skills and qualifications.

By providing all of this information, you will help them gain a better grasp of your qualifications and motivations, enabling them to write a compelling letter of recommendation on your behalf.

Letter of Recommendation Template and Useful Phrases

A letter of recommendation is an essential document for any admission process, especially for a graduate program.

It requires a good understanding of the applicant’s character and skills, which makes the task challenging for many recommenders.

This is where a template and useful phrases come into play. Using a template can help the recommender to organize their thoughts and include all the necessary information.

Here is a creative template that you can use to ensure that your letter of recommendation follows the most impactful and sensible structure. Include the following:

SalutationAddresses the recipient or a general greeting if the recipient is unknown.Dear [recipient’s name]: or To Whom It May Concern:
IntroductionIntroduces the student being recommended, the purpose of the letter, and the relationship with the student.It is my pleasure to recommend [Student Name] for admission to [program] at [university]. I am [your position, relationship to the student, and institution]. I came to know [Student Name] when [context, e.g. I was their Graduate Student Instructor for Philosophy 111].
Course OverviewProvides a brief description of the course in which the student excelled.The course comprised [short description of course].
Student’s MeritsHighlights the student’s performance, skills, and accomplishments within the course.[Student Name] distinguished themselves by [specific achievements and skills]. I would rank them in the top [X%] of students that I have taught in the past [X years] in respect of [specific qualities, e.g. writing ability and research skills].
Analytical SkillsEmphasizes the student’s analytical and critical thinking abilities through examples.[Student Name] demonstrated [specific analytical skills and examples from their work].
Communication SkillsElaborates on the student’s written and oral communication skills, as well as their ability to work in a team.[Student Name] has excellent communication skills. [Provide examples of their written work, oral articulateness, and teamwork skills].
Personal QualitiesDescribes the student’s personal traits, work ethic, and motivation.At a personal level, [Student Name] is [describe their personal qualities, discipline, and work ethic].
RecommendationStrongly endorses the student for the graduate program and explains why they would be a good fit.[Student Name] is unquestionably an exceptional candidate for graduate study in [field]. [Provide reasons why the student would benefit from and excel in the program].
ConclusionOffers further assistance and provides contact information for follow-up.If I can be of any further assistance or provide you with any further information, please do not hesitate to contact me. Yours sincerely, [sender’s signature] [sender’s name and title]

Useful phrases and sentence starters to use in someone’s letter of recommendation include:

  • It is my pleasure to strongly recommend [Student Name] for [program/position] at [university/company].
  • In my [X years] of experience as a [your position], I have rarely encountered a student as [adjective describing the student, e.g., dedicated or talented] as [Student Name].
  • [Student Name] consistently demonstrated exceptional [skill or quality, e.g., problem-solving abilities] during their time in my [course/department].
  • [Student Name]’s commitment to [subject or skill, e.g., research or teamwork] has been evident through their [specific accomplishment or project].
  • I was particularly impressed by [Student Name]’s ability to [specific skill or achievement, e.g., grasp complex concepts quickly or lead group discussions].
  • One of [Student Name]’s most remarkable qualities is their [personal trait, e.g., determination or creativity], which has contributed to their success in [specific context or project].
  • [Student Name] has proven to be an asset to our [course/department/team] due to their [qualities or skills, e.g., strong work ethic or excellent communication skills].
  • I have no doubt that [Student Name] will excel in [program/position] and make a significant contribution to [university/company/field].
  • [Student Name] possesses the intellectual curiosity, motivation, and dedication necessary to thrive in a challenging [academic/professional] environment.
  • I wholeheartedly endorse [Student Name] for [program/position] and believe they will be a valuable addition to the [university/company/community].
  • [Student Name] has consistently demonstrated a high level of [skill or quality, e.g., academic performance or leadership] throughout their time in my [course/department].
  • Based on my experience working with [Student Name], I am confident that they have the potential to [specific outcome, e.g., make a meaningful impact in their field or succeed in their chosen career path].

These recommendation letter template and useful phrases are excellent resources for recommenders to achieve a well-crafted and effective letter of recommendation.

Feel free to send them to the person writing your letter of recommendation.

What style of writing should be used in a recommendation letter?

When writing a recommendation letter, it is important to use a formal and professional writing style.

This means using proper grammar, punctuation, and sentence structure.

It is also important to clearly state the qualifications and strengths of the person you are recommending.

Use specific examples and anecdotes to illustrate these qualifications and emphasize the individual’s skills, achievements, and character.

When writing a recommendation letter for admission to college or graduate school, it is important to highlight the applicant’s academic achievements and potential, as well as their personal traits, such as their reliability, work ethic, and communication skills.

Overall, the tone of the letter should be positive and enthusiastic to give the reader an honest and convincing picture of the applicant’s strengths and suitability for the opportunity at hand.

Wrapping up

Obtaining strong letters of recommendation is a crucial aspect of the graduate school application process.

The quality of these letters can significantly impact the chances of acceptance, making it essential for applicants to choose their recommenders wisely and equip them with the necessary information to craft compelling endorsements.

By carefully selecting letter writers, providing them with ample resources and guidance, and using templates and useful phrases to ensure effectiveness, applicants can create a powerful impression on the graduate admissions committee.

Well-written recommendation letters serve as a testament to the candidate’s potential for success, showcasing their academic abilities, personal qualities, and suitability for advanced studies.

The Author

Dr Andrew Stapleton has a Masters and PhD in Chemistry from the UK and Australia. He has many years of research experience and has worked as a Postdoctoral Fellow and Associate at a number of Universities. Although having secured funding for his own research, he left academia to help others with his YouTube channel all about the inner workings of academia and how to make it work for you.