Updated: Apr 3, 2020
Many universities and scholarship programs will ask students for 3 letters of recommendation. The idea behind asking for these letters is not just to have someone say that the applicant is “good” or “qualified,” but to give the admissions committee a deeper insight into who you are and why you’re qualified. Recommendation letters can add a layer of depth and color to your application, and therefore you should not take them lightly. You need to be thoughtful about how you ask for recommendation letters and help your recommenders write a detailed and accurate letter.
Get to know your teachers, employers, advisors, and professors - it is easier to ask for letters from people you had cultivated a strong working relationship with. For example, is there a teacher professor you did research with? Or who advised and mentored you in high school or college? Did you pursue an internship and have a boss who could speak to your experience? Or a class teacher who knows you on a “deeper” level?
Do not be shy to ask - Teachers and employers and understand that this is how the process works. They have received help and support along the way, and many will be willing to engage with students. Remember, you can always politely ask.
Diversify your letters- Letters are intended to provide an extra layer of holisticness (well-roundedness), attest to your passion/curiosity for learning. If you really like theatre, journalism or Math, make sure to solicit letters from teachers outside these specific subjects. If you are applying for a leadership scholarship, letters from organizations/counselors will be very valuable.
Ask early - it is better to ask early so that 1). You can be respectful of their time and 2). You give them the chance to be thoughtful and write a strong letter for you.
Prepare materials for your recommender - make their job easy by preparing the following materials:
Draft of your application essay
Summary of your career goals
Description of what you are applying to - program, scholarship, etc.
Your resume - which includes activities, research experiences, job experiences, etc.
All relevant deadlines and instructions on how they can send recommendations. Make it very easy for them.
Say thank you and keep them updated: Make sure you say thank you, and keep your recommenders updated on your progress.
Clarify the process - If your teachers/professors are in a country/context/school system where recommendation letters are not common, take the time to clarify the process. It may take some time but they will appreciate it and will write a stronger letter if they understand what the expectations are.
Consider official translation - we heard from some students that some of their teachers or faculty members may not feel too comfortable writing in English. We know successful applications where some of the recommenders wrote in their native language and officially translated the letters. You can also double-check with the university to confirm that this is OK with them.
Professional Master Degrees
Professional recommendations are important - If you are applying for a professional degree/masters (such as an MBA or MPP), you should strongly consider providing recommendations from people you have worked within a professional context. For example, consider asking your manager to write you a letter of recommendation. Since these programs are professional in nature, they value learning about how you performed in a professional context.
Graduate schools (PhD)
PhD is a research degree - Unlike undergraduate or MA education, where the degrees are mostly course-based, doctoral degrees are, by default, research-based. You will be asked to produce an original dissertation on a subject that is at the forefront of human knowledge. This means that admission committees prioritize letters that speak to your research capacities, tenacity, proactiveness, and team skills. Committee members already have your transcripts, and thus letters that just speak to your grades, exams are insufficient. Instead, seek letters from professors/industry experience where you actually built stuff, initiated a project, produced a paper,..etc.