Graduate School Applications

Recommendation Letter Guide

This guide provides an overview of the graduate school recommendation letter process, the materials required and best practices for how to navigate it all.

  • Who to ask?
    • What qualities or skills are you trying to emphasize? Ask those who can speak meaningfully about you. During your undergraduate years, cultivate relationships with faculty and staff in classes, research and extracurricular activities, and keep in touch to maintain these relationships.

    • Programs typically want to hear from faculty members since they are in the best position to evaluate your preparedness for graduate study. A staff member or employer may be appropriate for one letter, especially if they can speak to skills and experiences that relate to your future graduate work. If the school specifies that they only want letters from faculty, you should abide by that instruction.

  • When to ask?
    • Ask early — at least one month before the deadline, ideally two months in advance. More than two months and they may forget; less than a month, and they might not have enough time. Writing a good letter takes time and your professors are likely to have packed schedules.
  • How to ask?
    • Whether you make your request in person, on Zoom or over email will differ according to the letter-writer’s preferences. Leave the method open: If you’re asking by email, offer to meet in person to discuss; if you’re chatting in person, offer to send the details over email.
    • Consider the initial outreach to be the start of the discussion, not the end. In that initial outreach, be sure to tell them why you’ve identified them as a good recommender for this opportunity.
    • Give them draft copies of everything the application is asking for, including a personal statement (even as a draft), a CV or resume and unofficial transcript.
    • Provide recommenders with information about you, your relationship with them and your future goals. Be strategic about where you want the recommender to focus; their goal is to tell the most compelling story about you and help you stand out from the competition. These materials help them do so.
    • Use the template available on our website – How to Help Faculty Help You: Recommendation Letters.
  • Common mistakes
    • Not asking
    • Not asking soon enough
    • Not asking the right people
    • Not providing the recommender with enough guidance
    • Asking someone whom you go to with difficulties and trust, but who doesn’t have a lot of context about your achievements or capabilities
  • Feeling intimidated?
    • Never do someone the favor of rejecting yourself for them.
    • By not asking, you may steal the possible joy that faculty will receive from getting to brag about you.
    • Faculty get these requests all of the time; your asking is not an imposition or unusual in any way.
  • What if they say no?
    • Don’t be afraid of hearing “no.” A no is a gift to you; it is better to avoid a bad or neutral letter.
    • Reasons a faculty member might not agree to write your letter:
      • They believe they are not a good choice for the opportunity you are seeking. For example, a student applying for a physics program would want recommenders who can speak to their research or other specialized skills, so an English professor may not be the best choice. It is always worth a discussion with a faculty member if you aren’t sure whether they are a good fit.
      • They don’t remember you. If the class you took with them was very large, you didn’t talk in class and you didn’t attend office hours, the recommender may not have any good stories to tell about you.
      • They do remember you, but their memories are not flattering. Maybe you didn’t come to class, you fell asleep in class frequently, or you didn’t do the work well or on time. Perhaps you told them that their class was too difficult or their expectations too high. You don’t want a letter from someone who had these types of experiences with you.
      • They are too busy and will not be able to write a good letter on time.
  • Should I send reminders?
    • Yes! Check the application to make sure they haven’t already submitted your letter. Some recommenders will be tweaking and editing until the last minute. Most recommenders will appreciate the reminder.
    • Consider the frequency that makes sense for each person. Have they been responsive to prior messages about the letter?
    • A reminder doesn’t have to be a new email; it can be a follow-up to previous correspondence. Be gracious, polite and warm. For example:

    Hi Professor Santiago,

    Thank you again for agreeing to write my recommendation letter for graduate school. I know you are really busy, so I really appreciate it. Just a quick reminder that the letter is due on Oct. 10, about two weeks from now. I’ve attached my materials again so they are handy, and here is the link to the application site. If you need any further information from me, please let me know.

    Have a great day,


  • Follow-up
    • Send a thank you note once your letters have been submitted.
    • Let your recommenders know the outcome of your graduate school applications.
  • Advice from faculty
    • “It's best to be professional: send (or give) the faculty member your resume or CV when you ask, together with a copy of your personal statement and a reminder of which course you took with the faculty member in which semester.”
    • “Ask someone who knows you really well — hopefully, someone you did some research or work with. A professor you had one class with isn’t going to be able to write a good review. As readers, we can tell how well the reviewer knows you.”
    • “Find a letter writer who knows you better; a standard letter is relatively neutral”
    • “Ask the reference to identify some strengths that are especially relevant to the student's study plan/research goals at Binghamton and supply with details.”
    • “Try to get letters from people who understand you from a range of perspectives. And do your best to get them from people who have worked with you fairly recently. Several letters from people who all knew you a number of years ago, and no letters from people you've worked with since then, is a red flag.”