Skip to main content

Cornell University

Letters of Recommendation

Understanding Letters of Recommendation

Letters of recommendation are requested for almost every application to graduate school.  If they are not required, it is still helpful to submit them. In letters of recommendation, admissions committees look for information not provided elsewhere in the application. An effective letter will describe your strengths in ways that are impossible to measure by grades on tests. Letter writers often measure candidates for graduate school in comparison to their peers to distinguish them from other applicants.

Deciding Whom to Ask

Choosing your recommender can be difficult, and most graduate schools require two or three letters. Identify a few faculty members, administrators, or employers with whom you have become acquainted through classes, extracurricular activities, or jobs. Recommendation letters from professors are highly valued, especially if you have helped them with research or served as their TA, or they supervised your honors thesis.

Ultimately, the ideal letter writer is someone who can describe you and the work you have done positively and in some detail. The rank or title of the writers is not nearly as important as what they say. If a teaching assistant knows you better than a chaired professor, ask the TA, not the professor. A good person to ask for a reference will meet several of the following criteria:

  • Is familiar with your work in the field and can comment on it in detail.
  • Knows you well in more than one area of your life.
  • Has a high opinion of you.
  • Can make a favorable comparison of you with your peers based on having taught or worked with a large number of students.
  • Knows about the particular places to which you are applying as well as the type of study you plan to pursue.
  • Is known by the admissions committee and valued as someone whose judgment should be given weight.
  • Writes well.

No one person is likely to satisfy all these criteria, so choose recommenders who meet as many of the criteria as possible.

Asking for a Letter of Recommendation

Once you have decided whom to ask, you may wonder how to go about it. The best approach is to ask your recommenders if they think they know your work well enough to write a positive letter on your behalf. If you sense reluctance, you can politely say "thank you" and find someone else. Be aware that the closer to schools' deadlines you ask, the more likely faculty are to hesitate because of time constraints. Ask early in the fall semester of your senior year if you plan to attend graduate school right after graduation. 

Informing Your Recommenders

As you line up two or three suitably enthusiastic recommenders, make appointments to talk with them. During the appointments be prepared to make available recommendation forms provided by the schools; be sure to provide very specific information for online submissions for the writers' convenience. Talk with the writer about your academic and professional goals and why you are applying to certain schools to help him or her prepare a substantive letter to support your candidacy. Provide them with supporting information along with the recommendation forms, including a draft of your application essay (if possible), a resume or curriculum vitae, and a transcript. Be sure to outline, in a cover email, the contact you have had with them: course title(s) and number(s) and grades received, research papers you wrote, etc. Also, make sure writers know when your application deadlines fall.

On the recommendation forms, you will be asked to waive or retain the right to see the recommendation. Discuss the confidentiality of the letter with your writers; some faculty members will not write a letter unless it remains confidential. This does not necessarily mean it’s negative, rather that they believe it will carry more weight if it is confidential. Waiving the right to see a letter may increase the perception of its validity. The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) of 1974 (Buckley Amendment) requires that students be advised of their rights concerning educational records, such as letters of recommendation. Review the information on waiving or retaining access to your letters.

Trust and Verify

Verify that graduate schools have received your recommendation letters before their application deadlines. Prior to deadlines, you may want to contact schools to inquire about the status of your applications. If your files remain incomplete because letters of recommendation are missing, don't be shy; get in touch with the writer (or the person’s administrative assistant), who may need a tactful reminder of the deadlines.

Maintaining Confidential Letters

If you are planning to wait a year or more before applying to graduate school, or you want to make sure all letters are written and compiled in one place before applying, you can establish a credentials file, which is a repository for letters of recommendation and other documents. Keep in mind that generalized letters of recommendation, such as those sometimes written for credentials files, are not as effective as those composed by a writer with a specific field of study in mind.