Graduate School Recommendation Letters

How to Time your Requests to Meet Application Deadlines

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Faculty members are busy people and graduate admissions time falls at an especially hectic point in the academic year — usually at the end of the fall semester. It is important that hopeful applicants demonstrate respect for their letter writer's time by providing him or her with plenty of advance notice.

Although at least a month is preferable, more is better and less than two weeks is unacceptable — and will likely be met with a "no" by the faculty member. The ideal time to give a letter writer, though, is anywhere from one to two months before the letter is due with your submission. 

What Letter Writers Need From the Applicant

Chances are, the letter writer a graduate school applicant has selected knows him or her on a professional and personal level, and will, therefore, have a good foundation for what should be included,  but he or she may need a bit more information about the program being applied to, the applicant's goals in applying there, and even perhaps a bit more information about the applicant's academic and professional careers.

When asking a peer, colleague, or faculty member to write a letter of recommendation, it is important the writer knows the finer points of the program being applied to. For instance, if the applicant is requesting a letter for a medical graduate school as opposed to a graduate law school, the writer would want to include accomplishments the applicant has made in the medical field while under his or her guidance.

Understanding the applicant's goals in continuing to pursue an education will also benefit the writer. If for instance, the applicant hopes to further his or her understanding of a field as opposed to progressing his career, the writer may want to include independent research projects he or she helped the applicant with or a particularly strong academic paper the student wrote on the matter.

Finally, the more details an applicant is able to provide the letter writer about his or her accomplishments in academic or professional pursuits of the degree, the better the letter of recommendation will turn out. Even a student's most trusted advisor might not know the full breadth of his or her achievements, so it's important he give a bit of a background on his history in the field.

What to Do After Getting a Recommendation Letter

Provided the applicant gave the letter writer enough time before the application deadline, there are a few things the applicant should do after receiving his or her recommendation letter.

  1. First things first -- applicants should read the letter and make sure none of the information in it is erroneous or contradicts other parts of their application. If an error is spotted, it's perfectly acceptable to ask the writer to have another look and inform him or her of the mistake. 
  2. Secondly, it's very important that applicants write a thank you letter, note, or some sort of gesture of gratitude toward the faculty member or colleague who wrote the letter — this little thanks goes a long way in maintaining important professional connections in a related field (since most letter writers should be affiliated with the field of study the applicant is pursuing).
  3. Finally, applicants must not forget to send the letter with their graduate school applications. It may seem obvious, but the number of times these vital pieces of paper fall to the wayside in the chaos of applying bears repeating: do not forget to send the recommendation letter.