5 Steps to Ask for Recommendation Letters for Master's Programs
Thursday, March 31, 2022
Recommendation letters are an essential piece of your application to a university program, but who to ask and how to ask for a letter of recommendation can be an intimidating experience. Letters of recommendation can be the element that sets your application apart from other candidates. And while you can’t control the content of the letters, there are steps you can take to make the process successful and influence the quality of response:
Step 1: Identify who to ask. Hint: Your biggest fans.
The most important factor in identifying potential recommendation letter writers is asking someone who knows you well. The most effective letters are from people who are acquainted with your skills and strengths, and who think very highly of you.
Try creating a list of several people you’ve worked directly with for a meaningful amount of time either in college or at work. Consider who you think recognizes your work ethic and who can write a positive review of your accomplishments.
If you’re an undergraduate student, you may choose to ask your professors or an academic advisor. If you’re no longer in college, you may want to ask your supervisor and colleagues. Also, a quick tip, check with the program you're interested in to see whether the recommendation should be professional or academic. Either way, these should be professional references and not personal contacts.
Step 2: Plan ahead. Give your recommenders plenty of time.
Writing a letter is a big favor, so approach how you request a letter of recommendation from a respectful, formal, and grateful place. That includes giving the writer enough time to write a comprehensive letter. Potential recommenders may be overwhelmed with professional and personal obligations and short notice may mean they will be late submitting or they may write a poor quality letter.
At a minimum, your request should come a month before the application due date. If you know your recommender is in the middle of a busy period, it’s wise to give them more than a month. You can also consider giving the writer a deadline that is before the application deadline to give yourself some extra time. A recommender with sufficient time can thoughtfully consider your qualifications and write an accurate letter.
Step 3: Invite your recommender to chat—in person or virtual.
It’s professional courtesy to have a conversation first before you make a formal request for a recommendation letter. Try to schedule a brief meeting or even ask your recommender for coffee to discuss your desire to apply to the university program. Ideally, you’d be able to meet in person, but a video or phone call is the next best option.
A two-way chat at this stage is crucial to let your contact know how important this is to you and how thankful you are for their consideration. During the meeting, try to walk them through these items:
- How much do you value your experiences working with them?
- What do you hope to achieve from the program(s) you’re applying to.
- How their input will be significant to your application and why did you choose them specifically to write a letter for you.
Step 4: Explain clearly what you need and give your recommenders everything they need.
Once you’ve had your conversation and they have agreed to write a letter of recommendation, follow up with a formal email request. In the email, provide information on the qualifications that make you suitable for the university program(s). You can email the recommender items such as your resume, academic transcripts, and even the personal essay you’re including in your application. Remind your recommender of the skills or insight you gained from them—the ones you chatted about in your meeting—that you want them to emphasize in their letter.
At the same time, you don’t want to overload your writer with information, so keep the lists short and easy to digest. It should be a helpful, quick reference. And make sure to include any logistical details that are important to their recommendation letter:
- The name of the school(s) and program(s) you are applying to.
- The deadlines and format for recommendation letter submissions.
- Note: Some programs may require the writer to send the letter directly to the admissions team via email, online portal, or traditional mail. Make sure you review the school’s requirements carefully.
Step 5. Write a thank-you note to show your gratitude.
Your recommenders have taken time out of their schedule to write a letter and support your pursuit of higher education and career development, so make sure to send a thank-you note. Thank them for their time and effort, and show appreciation for endorsing your qualifications.
In addition, it’s nice to let them know if you’ve been accepted to your chosen program and what your plans are for the future. This added gesture is another professional courtesy that is likely to strengthen your relationship with that person, which can benefit you in the future should you need their endorsement again.
Professional References for Carlson School Applications
At the Carlson School, most master's programs require letters of recommendation as part of the application process. The number of recommendations and whether it should be a professional and/or academic recommenders vary by program, so review requirements carefully. All programs use the online application to provide the names and contact information of professional references. We partner with GMAC for the common letter of recommendation, so you simply need to provide contact information for your recommenders in the online application and the form will be automatically routed to them via email for completion.