Requesting a letter of recommendation

Applying for graduate school or fellowships can be daunting. To make the process more stressful, we often need several letters of recommendation for a complete application. Below are some tips on who to ask and how to ask for a letter of recommendation.

  • Think critically about what skills you want to highlight in your application. Pick recommenders that will highlight different aspects of your application -benchwork, scientific thought, leadership, public service, communication skills, etc. Coming up with this list can be hard. Think about the skills that you will need for whatever you are applying for and highlight those.
  • It is important to have at least two very strong recommendations. It is important to identify people who are in roles that use the skills they are highlighting. For example, if you are applying to medical school, try to get a recommendation letter from a doctor. Graduate school? Fellowship? A recommendation letter from a scientist, especially from your research labs, is important.
    • Start with people who you’ve interacted with most and who can speak to your strengths with concrete examples.
    • For graduate school applications, it is important to ask for a letter from each research significant research experience that you’ve had. A research experience that doesn’t have a letter of recommendation associated with it can be viewed questionably.
    • Often you will need 3-4 letters of recommendation for a fellowship or graduate program. It is okay to ask non-research mentors, advisors, or instructors for letters. These letters will not hurt you and are needed for a complete application.
    • Make sure that everyone you ask is a professional in their field. Avoid asking friends or family.
  • Ask directly. “I am hoping you can write a strong letter highlighting XYZ about me. Please let me know if you will be able to write a strong letter of recommendation for me.” You do not have to use this exact language, but asking for a strong recommendation is important. You don’t want any recommendation letter, you want to identify the people that can write you the strongest letter possible. Often you might avoid asking someone to write a letter because of a prior incident. It is okay to ask directly if this incident will effect their letter. In most cases, it will not!
  • Help your recommender write your letter. Even if not solicited, it is often helpful to tell a recommender what aspects you would like them to highlight and what you hope to do if you get selected for this opportunity (long term goals).  Include your resume and some salient points that will help the letter writer write your letter.
  • Include all relevant info in one email – the specific program you are applying to, name of school, what you want them to talk about, when the letter is due — even if this is repetitive from previous emails.
  • Provide enough time for your recommender to write your letter. If you know you are applying to schools or a fellowship, plan to ask your recommenders several months in advance. This is important for your recommender to have the time to write you a strong letter. It is also give you time, in case you need to identify additional recommenders.

Writing a letter of recommendation

Were you asked to write your own letter of recommendation when you requested a mentor to write a letter for you? Don’t worry – this is common practice. Writing your own letter is a great way to highlight exactly what you want the recommender to say. And it’s a great way to feel good about all of your amazing accomplishments. Don’t forget that your recommender still has the freedom to edit the letter as they please. We have annotated a recommendation letter to identify the important components. You can also find more examples of recommendation letters on this website.

  • If you are struggling to come up with things to say about yourself, go back to that list of skills you identified earlier, and pick one or two of those.
  • If you have to write your own letter, it can often be helpful to ask someone else who knows you to edit it — it is often hard to talk about oneself in a superlative manner.
  • If you are writing your own letter or writing for someone else, be aware of implicit biases. These are great resources on how to avoid gender bias and racial bias in letters of recommendation, but remember that implicit bias plays a role in how we write recommendations for many groups of people.
  • Check out our longer post on writing letters of recommendation for more advice!

As you begin to think about letters of recommendation, remember that you can make an appointment with the Comm Lab to think through who to ask or how to write the email requesting your letter. If you have to write a letter for a mentee or for yourself, check out our new post on how to write your own letter or someone else’s letter of recommendation.

Blog post by Prerna Bhargava. 

First published Oct 2019. Updated July 2021.