Oct 19, 2022

Cultivating relationships with your future letter writers and activating those relationships during application season

Overview: Letters of recommendation will have a large impact on your admission to graduate school, with the power to tip your application between the acceptance pile and the rejection pile.  The review teams are looking for a knowledgeable member of your discipline to provide testimony about you and weigh in on your future success as a graduate student and a member of the scientific community.  I have asked two of my colleagues, Drs. Margaret Ptacek and Renee Cottle, to join me as I wrote this blog post.  Dr. Ptacek's research group focuses on understanding the processes that control genetic divergence among populations and the contributions of these processes to local adaptation and speciation.   Dr. Cottle's research group seeks to improve the lives for those with inherited metabolic diseases.   


Post Contributor(s): Drs. Marian Kennedy, Margaret Ptacek (Professor, Clemson University Department of Biological Sciences), Renee Cottle (Assistant Professor, Clemson University Department of Bioengineering) 



Photo by FLY:D on Unsplash
Letters of recommendation (LORs) should come from people who know you well and have the experience to comment on your success in a graduate program.  Review committees use LORs to learn about personal characteristics of applicants as well as their prior experience.  You want your LORs to give anecdotes about the experiences that your letter writer has had with you in class projects, field trips, or research labs.  In a great LOR, the letter writer makes the applicant “come alive” for the reader and they can see what type of person you are in terms of intellect, drive, commitment, and ability to learn.  Since these degrees are often research based, that means your letter writers should either have an advanced degree equivalent to the one you are earning, manage people with the advanced degree you will be earning or, preferably, be researchers mentoring graduate students.  This last category could be faculty at your university, staff members at national laboratories, or researchers at industrial facilities with adjunct positions at a university. 


The first step in getting a letter of recommendation, is getting to know your potential letter writer well. 

As faculty, we see a lot of students each day.  Many of those students sit across from us in auditoriums or classrooms, often listening to a lecture and taking notes. They also don’t talk to us very much except to clarify points in class or ask about deadlines.  We know little about them other than through observation of their written performance on their graded exams. 


To help us as faculty get to know you, here are some ways that we can interact more.

  • Attend our office hours.  You can discuss class work or just talk to us about your career goals, etc.    
  • Conduct research with us during the normal academic year.  You can complete research for academic credit, volunteer, or even apply to be a paid research assistant. 
  • Apply to complete research with a faculty member at a National Science Foundation Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) site. 
  • Get involved in your department by joining student clubs or chapters affiliated with it.  These student groups normally have a faculty member as their advisor and this person gets to know the students well. 


Before you ask a faculty member for a letter, do your homework. 

You need to gather all the information that a letter writer will need.  First, make a list of all the programs you are applying to and their respective deadlines.  You will also want to highlight how the faculty member will need to submit the recommendation letters (through an online web portal, College Net,

email to admissions committee or grad program coordinator, etc.). 


Next, make sure that you provide documents containing the following information:

  • When the letter writers first met you (semester and year) and in what capacity (instructor, research advisor, club advisor, etc.). 
  • Why you are interested in going to graduate school.
  • Your long-term career goals.
  • Why you chose your field and program.
  • Why you chose to pursue a MS or PhD.
  • Your GPA and GRE scores (if you have those).
  • Anticipated graduation date.
  • Your research interests and experience.


If all that information is included in the personal statement you prepared for your graduate application, then you can just plan on attaching the personal statement to your email.  This is often a good idea anyway because it helps your letter writer know you a bit more as a person outside of class and they can comment on your experiences outside of school, your resilience, your interest in science since childhood, etc.


Be very specific when you request your letter of recommendation

You want to ask faculty members if they can write you a “good” or “strong” recommendation letter.  A marginal letter can make review committees hesitate about accepting you. 


So, in the first few lines of your letter to them, let the faculty member know that you are interested in graduate school and then ask the golden question:    

“Do you have the bandwidth to write me a strong recommendation letter for graduate school?”

Then include a list of programs you will be applying to with their deadlines.  By specifically asking the faculty members, you will invite them to reflect on if they know you well enough to write a strong letter.  They will also need to identify if they have the bandwidth in the timeframe before the deadline.  If they hesitate, move on, and ask another person to write your letters. 


If they agree, make sure to send them a follow up email with your resume, personal statement, and the information highlighted above. 


Ask early

The farther ahead of the deadline you ask us, the more likely it is a faculty member can agree to the request and carve out time to write a good letter.   Unfortunately, there are more good students than we have time to write letters for.  At some point, we will not agree to write any additional letters simply because we have committed what time we have for such letter. So choose wisely. Ask faculty to write your letters of recommendation for graduate school, and ask your TA to write letters where the review committee does not necessarily need the input of a PhD like an application to be a dorm resident assistant or to join a study abroad program.


What to do if you have worked much more with a graduate student than a faculty member

You have a few options.  The first is to “remind” the faculty member which graduate student in their group has really observed you with research.  The other is to see if the graduate student could cowrite the letter with the faculty advisor. 


What to do after you have been accepted into your program or received your fellowship

As soon as you get accepted or receive your fellowship, you start a new phase with your letter writers.   You should immediately let them know what happened and thank them. Having written letters for you, these individuals are emotionally invested in you achieving your goals.   In addition, you will continue to need letters of recommendation or references in the coming years.  By staying in touch with these people, you will have a higher chance that these people will be willing to continue to write LORs as you begin to apply for jobs.  We would suggest putting a note in your calendar to follow up with these people every 6 months or a year. 


Where else can I find some advice? 

Letters of Recommendation for Grad School: Beware the Bad Letter-Writer” post on  MyGraduateSchool Blog

  • Dave G. Mumby, Ph.D. keeps an excellent blog. He has written books and consults on applying to graduate school programs. Dr. Kennedy loves this specific blog post because it highlights the negative impact of a mediocre letter. 

Graduate Letter of Recommendation Templates and Examples 2022-2023 on Wordvice Blog

  • This advice is for faculty writing letters of recommendation.  It does take faculty about 45-60 minutes for an initial letter of recommendation (once all the initial information is gathered) and then another 20 minutes for additional letters to make sure they are tailored to each specific program.  You might find the information valuable in this post since it will help you identify the information you should provide to anyone who has committed to writing you a letter.   

Advice for Graduate Research Fellowship Letter Writers

  • ·  This site is geared to helping faculty craft letters of recommendation for the NSF GFRP program.  Read it to know what types of things go into the letters and make sure that the people you are requesting your letters can comment on those things.  For example, in an NSF GFRP letter, the writers must comment on your prior research experiences.  It should be helpful if one of the letter writers was one of your research advisors and you will want to provide the others a list of your research experiences.


How to get recommendation letters in STEM” post on the PhDxlife blog

  • Lots of great advice.  Their tip about asking a letter of reference writer if they want to receive a reminder and at what frequency is particularly smart.   

Some Tips for Writing Recommendation Letters

  • This blog post was written by Kate Epstein, the editor who removes a bulk of the errors before you read my posts.  She wrote this for those who write recommendation letters.  Understanding what does into a letter is helpful when you provide materials to your letter writers.  


Acknowledgements: This blog post was edited by Kate Epstein of EpsteinWords. She specializes in editing and coaching for academics, and she can be reached at kate at epsteinwords.com.



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