When Your Grad School Recommendation Letter Doesn't Arrive

Woman checking email on laptop.
Marc Romanelli / Getty Images

Recommendation letters are a vital part of your application to graduate school. All applications require multiple letters of recommendation from professionals, typically faculty members, who evaluate your capacity for graduate-level work. Selecting faculty to approach and soliciting recommendation letters is challenging. Applicants usually breathe a sigh of relief once several faculty members have agreed to write on their behalf.

Asking Is Not Enough

Once you have obtained your letters, do not rest on your laurels. Stay aware of the status of your application, particularly whether each program has received your recommendation letters. Your application will not be read — not one word will pass the admission committee's eyes — until it is complete. Your application is not complete until all recommendation letters are received.

Most graduate programs notify students of the status of their applications. Some send emails to students with incomplete applications. Many have online tracking systems that permit students to log in and determine their status. Take advantage of opportunities to check up on your application. Recommendation letters do not always arrive on time — or at all.

Now What?

With admissions deadlines rapidly approaching, it's up to you to ensure that your application is complete. If a recommendation letter is missing, you must approach the faculty member and give a gentle nudge.

Many students find requesting recommendation letters difficult. Following up on late letters often is petrifying. Don't be afraid. It's a stereotype, but often true that many faculty members are tardy. They are late to class, late returning student work, and late in sending recommendation letters. Professors may explain that graduate programs expect faculty letters to be late. That may be true (or not), but it's your job to ensure that your letters arrive on time. You can't control the faculty member's behavior, but you can offer gentle reminders.

Email the faculty member and explain that the graduate program contacted you because your application is incomplete as they have not received all of your recommendation letters. Most faculty will immediately apologize, perhaps say that they forgot, and promptly send it. Others may not check their email or reply to your message.

If the professor does not answer email, your next step is to call. In many cases, you will have to leave a voicemail. Identify yourself. State your name. Explain that you are following up to request a recommendation letter be present because the graduate program has not received it. Leave your phone number. Thank the professor, then leave your phone number and name again. Speak slowly and clearly.

When you speak to the professor, be factual (e.g., "the admissions coordinator says the letter has not been received") and be courteous. Do not accuse the faculty member of being late or of trying to undermine your application. The fact is that he or she probably simply forgot. Remember that you want your professor to think highly of you as he or she writes your letter, so be polite and deferential.

Follow Up

After you have reminded faculty your job is not done. Follow up with the graduate programs. It's up to you to ensure that your application is complete. Some faculty might tell you that they will send the letter soon, but they again may fall victim to tardiness. Check up. You might find a week or two later that the letter still has not arrived. Again remind the professor. This time email and call. It isn't fair, but the reality is that some faculty, though they mean well, do not send recommendation letters on time. Be aware of this and do your best to ensure that your graduate application is complete and on time.

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Kuther, Tara, Ph.D. "When Your Grad School Recommendation Letter Doesn't Arrive." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, thoughtco.com/when-grad-school-recommendation-letter-doesnt-arrive-1685925. Kuther, Tara, Ph.D. (2020, August 26). When Your Grad School Recommendation Letter Doesn't Arrive. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/when-grad-school-recommendation-letter-doesnt-arrive-1685925 Kuther, Tara, Ph.D. "When Your Grad School Recommendation Letter Doesn't Arrive." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/when-grad-school-recommendation-letter-doesnt-arrive-1685925 (accessed March 21, 2023).