Jun 28, 2022

Recommendation Letters- How to ask and what to give to get the letters you deserve

Overview: Most undergraduate programs, graduate programs, award nominations, etc. will request at least one letter of recommendation per submission packet.  This post describes how you can identify the right people to write those letters and provide them the information needed to write a good letter for you.

Post Contributor(s): Marian Kennedy




Photo by Tamanna Rumee on Unsplash
Most undergraduate programs, graduate programs, award nominations, etc. will request at least one letter of recommendation per submission packet.  At this point of the process, many components of your submissions cannot be optimized (such as an academic transcript or journal paper published).  However, you have agency over your statements and letters of recommendation. 


Letters of recommendation should be written by people who both know you well and can speak to your qualifications for the program. So, as you consider who to ask for a letter, think about their experience.  For candidates applying to a graduate program in engineering, their letters should come from people who have completed a similar program.  That is, if you are applying to a doctoral program in mechanical engineering, a letter should come from a person who has earned their doctoral degree in that field.  The letter will also hold more weight if that person has advised doctoral candidates or early career engineers/scientists in that field.  This is because the committees reviewing these applications want to admit students who have a high probability of successfully completing the program. 


I normally advise students to reflect on who they know could write these letters and to make a list.  Once you have a list of 4 - 6 people, ask a mentor to talk through the list with you.  Once you have determined the list, you will need to gather the following information:

  • Your resume
  • A statement of interest (why you want to join this program and how it will help you meet your current career goals)
  • A complete list of the programs you are applying to and the deadlines for the letters.  You will also want to notate how the letters will be submitted (through a website, requested by email, etc.). 
  • A paragraph on when you met your reference, how, and some reminders about you. This is helpful to faculty who meet 200+ new students each year. 
  • You may also wish to suggest a “focus” and provide relevant evidence – scholarly achievement, community or public service, leadership, or vision and innovation. 


Once you have these materials, set up a meeting with your potential letter writers either in person or Zoom and ask them if they feel that they can write you a strong letter of recommendation.  If there is any hesitancy at all, do not try to convince them.  Instead move on to another person in your list. Potential references may find it hard to tell people ‘no’, and there are many reasons outside your control impacting their response (such as already having a ‘full plate’ at work). 


Once they agree, you can gently check in every 2-4 weeks until submitted.


Acknowledgement:  This blog post was edited by Jennie LaMonte, the director of scholar development for the Clemson College of Science.  Her comments and suggestions were integrated into this post and are much appreciated!