Great Grad School Recommendation Letters: The Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How
When you're applying for a new job, you know that at some point in the process, you'll have to supply your potential new employer with a list of references they can contact to determine if you are as good a worker as your work experience indicates.
Your letters of recommendation for graduate school should be no different: You should select individuals who can speak to your various academic or professional talents, particularly as they relate to the degree program you're applying to.
Just like applying to a new job, you want to "sell" yourself in the strongest way possible in order to give yourself whatever competitive advantage you can. Grad school recommendation letters are meant to establish your proficiency as a professional and your capability to succeed both in your graduate program and in your career after graduation.
Keep in mind that your university has a vested interest in your success, since you'll become a vital member of their alumni network upon graduation and maybe even a mentor to future students. So, they'll want to make sure you have the determination it takes to complete the program and the leadership skills to take what you've learned and run with it after graduation.
To help you determine your best references, we've outlined the who, what, when, where, how, and why of recommendation letters for grad school below.
When Should You Request Your Letters?
First of all, before even deciding who to ask for a recommendation, you should carefully review the application deadline for your program and create a quick timeline to ensure you provide yourself and your reference with enough time to write the strongest letter possible.
After all, if you need a letter of recommendation by the end of the week, you may want to ask someone you know on a more intimate level, since it's a favor you're asking for under such circumstances.
It's usually best to request your letters as soon as possible, so if your reference, for whatever reason, is unable or unwilling to submit a recommendation for you, you have time to request one from someone else, and they have enough time to write one.
For many graduate programs, students can request their letters of recommendation early in the process and continue submitting the additional admissions items without having to wait for your letters to arrive. Don't let your letters hold up your application!
Who Should You Ask to Be a Reference?
To get to the heart of the matter: Who should you ask to write your recommendation letters? Is there a "better" choice to ask to write your letter, or does the quality of the recommendation and how your described traits fit your intended degree matter most of all?
Sadly, there's no straightforward answer to this frequently asked question. It depends on the institution, program, person and how familiar they are with your abilities. Ultimately, you need to convince the Admissions Team that you belong in this program, that you will succeed in the program and after, taking what you've learned and applying it in innovative ways in your company and community after graduating.
If you're applying to a graduate business program, then a current manager or former employer can likely attest to your proficiency in the applicable skills. Professional references who can attest to your business prowess and emphasize your proficiency in the workplace can go a long way.
And if you can't think of someone at the management level, consider your current or former colleagues and work associates as potential references as well, since they know your professional capabilities as well as your personality and demeanor as a team member and leader in the workplace.
But don't worry if you cannot think of professional references right away. Think about your educational background—were there any particularly influential instructors you had during your undergraduate career? Is there any university faculty member you've stayed in touch with? Do they have connections at or ties to the university you're applying to?
Consider asking someone from your academic past to serve as a reference as well, since they know your abilities as a student, which speaks to your ability to complete the program successfully.
How to Request?
Regardless of who you decide upon as a reference, they should be contacted well in advance. Don't blindside your esteemed colleague, former professor, mentor, or manager with a request before first asking them if they would mind supplying you with a recommendation.
When it comes down to it, you don't want to assume they think as highly of you as you do of them, or that they have the availability to do so at the moment. So, as you determine who will write your recommendations, be certain to reach out to each individual first. A simple yet formal email—with proper salutations and signature—is all you need.
Explain that you're applying to grad school and need references who can speak to your skills or abilities in the areas most relevant to your degree program, work ethic, or the value you can bring to the university and program overall.
Santa Clara is located in the center of Silicon Valley and, as a result, has streamlined the admissions process for our prospective students' ease. To request your letters, you simply have to log in to the application portal, enter your reference's email address, and click submit. They will then receive an email indicating where to submit their feedback.
Additionally, if your reference delays submitting your letter or is not able to submit a letter for some time, SCU's application portal can send a reminder of the pending request, so you won't have to follow up with them repeatedly or risk irking them.
Finally, Where Should You Send Them?
Depending on the university you're joining, letters of recommendation might need to come from the writer themselves, and physical copies may still need to be mailed in, or there may be an online portal where they can submit a few short-answer questions about your various proficiencies. It varies per institution, but this can easily lead to lost letters or delays that cause you to start your program later than intended.
For Santa Clara's online graduate business programs, students request letters from their references online and their references submit their feedback online, so there's no need for printing any pages out or dealing with the cost and hassle of postage. After all, shouldn't an innovative online program be innovative enough to accept letters online too?
Just be sure to review the admissions requirements for your university to ensure you are following their set expectations, so your letter ends up in the right hands (or inbox!) when it needs to be.
Ready to Request Your Recommendations?
At the end of the day, your recommendation letters should speak volumes in your favor as a prospective student. Take some time to review the "who, what, when, where, why, and how" tips we provided above to determine the references who would serve your best interest. Outline who all you could ask and then narrow it down from there based on how they prove your return on investment (ROI) to the university.
Remember: The stronger the letter, the better your enrollment odds, so be sure to select the right writer!
Now that you know the ins and outs of recommendation letters for grad school, you've likely started to review the admissions requirements. Take some time now to check out our tips on writing your graduate admissions essays here!
Or, if this is the last item on your application checklist, get started with your application submission today.