Before the Ask
Start thinking of whom you might want to ask to write your recommendations as far in advance as you can – at least six months, but preferably more. This timeline will give you plenty of time to plan your strategy, cultivate necessary relationships, and navigate any tricky situations (such as asking your current supervisor for a recommendation when that person may not want you to leave). It also gives you time to identify challenges, such as not having an appropriate recommender at all, and finding workarounds.
Map out potential recommenders based on your draft school list. Maybe you’re applying to multiple programs (medical schools and Master’s of Science programs, or business schools and Master’s of Engineering programs), and it might work better to ask different recommenders for different programs. Business schools will likely always want professional recommendations unless otherwise stated, whereas other graduate programs may prefer academic or research recommenders. Also, as you get further out from undergrad, more emphasis will generally be placed on recommendations from your workplace, so you may want to include more professional recommendations.
Pick the right person
This part is where students tend to struggle the most. The key is to pick people that know you the best, can speak to your abilities, personality, and potential for success, and can write you a positive recommendation. Most importantly, they must be able to articulate who you are as a person. You’re in great shape if you’ve worked side-by-side the CEO of a startup for six years, but most people aren’t in that position. It’s common to want to ask people for a recommendation who have very senior professional or academic titles in the hopes that it will impress the admissions committee. Don’t. It’s usually always better to ask your direct supervisor, someone who has worked with you intimately and knows your strengths and weaknesses rather than the COO of the company who sees you once a month. It’s usually always better to ask your TA or a professor who has actually seen your work and hears your contributions rather than the department or lab head who can’t speak to your talents directly. The best recommendations are personal, specific, tangible, and honest. Pick the people who will be able to write a strong letter, and don’t pay attention to their titles.
Be creative if you need to. Sometimes there are interpersonal challenges or other circumstances where you can’t or don’t want to ask your direct manager or principal investigator for a recommendation. Maybe you don’t feel comfortable letting your workplace know that you’re applying to graduate school, or you didn’t make any connections with your professors as all your college classes were in huge lecture halls. Don’t fret. Think about other people who have seen your leadership abilities, who have seen you overcome adversity, or who have seen you accomplish something against all odds. Maybe it’s a leader in a non-profit organization where you volunteer, or a religious leader who has seen your dedication and community service, or someone in a different department at your company for whom you did a side project, or a coach from your college athletic team. Or, maybe it’s a past or former supervisor. There are many potential options and many forms a recommendation can take. The most important thing is to pick someone who really knows you and can be honest about their relationship to you.
Build the relationship
After you’ve identified the people you want to write you a recommendation, take the time to make a necessary investment in cultivating a relationship with them. Maybe you haven’t spoken to a professor since submitting your thesis in college, or maybe you’ve lost touch with a former manager. Get back in touch! Share an update over email and ask if they’re available for a phone call or if you can see them in person next time you’re in town. Doing this well in advance will help lay the groundwork for an easy ask as well as help them remember why you’re so great.
Ideally, you would start rekindling a relationship or increasing contact with each potential recommender six months to a year in advance. If you’ve already kept in close touch with these folks since college or after your first job, then you’re in great shape! The best situation to be in is when you share your potential future grad school plans with this person and they actually offer to write you a recommendation before you even ask. In this situation, you know they want to advocate for you and that the recommendation will be positive.
Have a backup
Try to identify at least one other person that you could ask to write a recommendation for you in a pinch, in case something falls through, someone backs out, or an emergency happens. One of my clients didn’t get a letter in time because his recommender’s house burned down the week it was due. Life happens, and it’s always good to be prepared. Have conversations with this backup person about your graduate school vision and goals and set the stage in case you need to rely on them for a recommendation at the last minute.
Before you ask someone for a recommendation, make sure you can clearly articulate your career goals, even if they aren’t set in stone. Ensure that you know what kinds of programs you want to apply to, why you want to go to grad school, and what kind of career you want to have post-graduate school. Solidifying these plans in your mind before you actually ask for a recommendation will help you better build a relationship with your recommender and appear organized, ambitious, and thoughtful well in advance.
I suggest asking recommenders if they would be willing to write a letter for you at least three months in advance. This timeline gives you ample opportunity to leverage your backup if they say no or are too busy. It also gives you enough time to provide sufficient content to your recommenders and follow up with them throughout the process (more on that later!)
Given that many graduate school applications are due around the holidays, asking well in advance becomes particularly critical. Plan out timelines that work for your recommender, and make sure to be accommodating. Perhaps they always take the month of December off to spend time with family, so you should be prepared to give them everything they need to be able to submit your letter by November. Most importantly, work around their schedules and remember to be grateful every step of the way – they are doing you a massive favor.
Remember that you’re not the only one. It’s likely that other people will be asking these same professors or supervisors for recommendation letters that are due around the same time as yours. Asking early, being organized, and staying on top of things will help ensure that your recommendation letter doesn’t get bumped down the list during a busy time, or forgotten altogether.
Give them the chance to say no
As highlighted above, the most important thing is to find someone who really knows you well and can write you a positive recommendation. If you aren’t sure whether someone views you as a strong candidate or if they remember you well enough to write you a good recommendation, you can frame the ask in a way that gives them the chance to say no. It’s extremely difficult to write a recommendation for someone you don’t think is a strong performer or for someone that you barely know – and it won’t bode well for you. So give them the chance to gracefully say no. You can say something like, “Feel free to let me know if you have too many other commitments in the fall or if you don’t think your recommendation would help me stand out to grad schools.” This approach gives them the opportunity to be honest, which will ultimately fare better for you.
Make it personal
Take the time to set up a phone call or Skype session to ask a potential recommender for a letter, or an in-person meeting if possible. It’s always more personal and increases your chances of success. Email is fine if you don’t have any other option. Let them know that they can take their time to get back to you, but that you wanted to ask them in person or over the phone. Most importantly, describe the role they have played in your life, as a teacher, manager, mentor, coach, or leader, and convey why they are important to you before you ask them to write you a recommendation.
Decide what you want them to highlight
Think about your candidacy as a whole, and what role each person may play in your overall application. What themes, strengths, and elements of yourself do you want each recommender to focus on? Maybe one professional recommender mentions your quantitative abilities, teamwork skills, and attention to detail, and maybe your former professor speaks to your research abilities, leadership in on-campus activities, and passion for healthcare. Articulating what you want each person to highlight will ensure that your application paints a holistic picture of who you are – by having each recommender describe different yet complementary elements of your candidacy.
Be overly organized
After you ask your recommenders and they hopefully say yes, you can get to work sending them information. I always suggest that people send recommenders a comprehensive packet of information to help them throughout the process. Make it as easy for them as possible. Not only does this effort keep you both organized, but it will impress them and give them more reason to think of you as a standout candidate. Although PowerPoint slides aren’t necessary, it can be a nice way to package your material. Here are the key pieces of information to include:
- A basic table with the names of the schools you’re applying to, the deadlines for the recommendation submission, any suggested interim meetings or check-in calls, and a suggested date for submission (usually 1-3 weeks before the actual deadline). This information will help them understand the level of effort it will take based on the number of schools you’re applying to.
- A quick explanation of your story – what you have done in your past, why you want to apply to these graduate degree programs in particular, what you hope to get out of graduate school, and what you (loosely) plan to do post-graduation. Including this information will help your recommender frame their letter in a way that supports your essay and overall narrative. If you have it ready, you can also include a draft of your essay or personal statement.
- A summary of your most relevant accomplishments from the time that you worked together or when you were in their class. This piece is more detailed and more relevant to them than just your resume. You want to highlight things that they may have forgotten, key projects you worked on, challenges you overcame, or personal circumstances that influenced you.
- Suggestions for themes and examples to focus on in their recommendation. As mentioned above, this piece should be well thought through in advance and be distinct from, yet complementary to the other elements of your application and your other recommendation letter(s). Feel free to err on the side of more details – they may not remember the difficult context behind why your pulling off that project on time and under budget was so impressive.
- Sample recommendation questions or the actual prompts for each school. You can find these online by googling the application or school. Putting the actual questions in the information you send over will not only help you better tailor the examples and content you send to your recommender, but will also help them plan their time and know word limits or specific questions in advance. Sometimes schools ask for your strengths and weaknesses or a description of constructive feedback they gave you. If you have ready examples or specific suggestions for content to include here, it can be really helpful for recommenders.
- Your resume (in Word or PDF)
- Start an application and list your recommenders on it as early as possible so that they have ample time to complete your letter. Follow up to make sure that your recommenders actually receive the trigger notification from the school’s website or platform.
- People get busy. Set regular check-ins with your recommenders to ask if they need any more information from you, if they want you to review anything, and to remind them of upcoming deadlines. Again, make it as easy on them as possible by being proactive and following up at regular intervals. Don’t leave it till the last week and then remind them – you won’t get as good of a recommendation.
- Application portals tend to get crowded and slow during the final days before a submission. Try to encourage your recommender to submit in advance of the actual deadline in case there are technical glitches or other issues that arise.
Stay in touch
- Send them a thank-you. A handwritten note, a small gift, a phone call, or a host of other things can really help convey your appreciation for all the time they spent making your application great.
- Let your recommenders know the outcome of your application at all stages, and express your gratitude throughout. You also may need them to write recommendations or serve as a reference for other things – such as grants, scholarships, or applications for internships or full-time jobs. It can be much easier to leverage relationships you’ve already built and content they have already developed for these types of things.