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September 19, 2008

Letters of Recommendation for Academic Graduate Degree Applicants

Steve Green on Letters of Recommendation for Academic Graduate Degree Applicants

In this first post on recommendations, I am going to focus my discussion of strategies for letters of recommendation for applicants to academic graduate degree programs in the sciences, social sciences, humanities, and engineering. This post also applies to those applying for LL.M. programs. In the next post, I provide advice for those applying to public policy programs. In the third post, I will provide advice for those applying to MBA programs. There is necessarily some repetition between these posts.

SUMMARY: First, I discuss the role of the recommendation within your application package, and I suggest how to maximize the impact of the endorsements you obtain. While the overall purpose of a recommendation letter may seem self-evident, you will solicit the best possible set of recommendations if you understand the strategic value of each letter to your overall application before you contact possible recommenders. Also, I provide specific advice to LL.M. applicants. Next, I describe what actions to take related to requesting letters. Finally, I offer advice for solving common problems in obtaining a letter of recommendation.


A recommendation letter is NOT a general endorsement of you. It is an endorsement of you based on specific abilities you have demonstrated to the
recommender. A recommendation letter needs to sound genuine, which is only possible when the writer can provide first-hand evidence of particular strengths.

A list of strengths that indicate a high potential for graduate school success begins with examples of your brainpower, which includes analytical ability, creativity, and logical thinking. A recommender should ideally be able to highlight written and verbal evidence of your brainpower.

Remember! The primary measurable evidence of your brainpower lies in your GPA and GRE or other graduate school test scores. A strong letter of recommendation will provide a concrete application of your ability, i.e. it will offer a glimpse how your brain worked to obtain a high GPA and test score. A strong recommendation will also support the claims made in your statement of purpose and/or other essays.

Other strengths that indicate your ability to succeed in graduate school include strength in skills that directly relate to your field, the ability to complete a task in a timely manner, excellent communication skills with your peers in a formal academic setting, organizational skills (such as you may have demonstrated in an extracurricular activity) or time management skills (e.g. your ability to earn a high GPA while engaged in extracurricular pursuits or while working near-full or full time.).

  • Ideally you should try to get letters from people able to provide specific examples of your strengths in your intended field of study.

  • If you are applying to a field different from the one in which you majored as an undergraduate, and cannot obtain more than one recommendation from someone in your new field, then try to obtain letters from people able to demonstrate applications of your brainpower in different fields.

  • If you are continuing graduate work in your major field of study, then aim to obtain letters from people who taught different topics within your field to demonstrate you are not someone who cannot perform outside a narrow field of interest.

You should request letters from those people in the best position to judge the particular strengths you wish to highlight in your application. Most graduate programs require two or three letters of recommendation.

  • As the guidelines above indicate, the best judge or your abilities to succeed in an academic graduate degree program are usually your undergraduate professors (or graduate professors if you are changing programs). Some guidelines for whom to ask:

    • If you have been a member of a small seminar run by a professor, then a recommendation from this teacher would be ideal as the recommender is perfectly suited to judge your written and oral brainpower, as well as your interactions with peers. Even if your only seminar experience was in a field outside your major (and you want to continue graduate work in your major field of study) a letter from a seminar professor can be an excellent endorsement of those academic strengths.

    • If most or all of your undergraduate courses included lectures supplemented by discussion sections with a graduate teaching assistant (TA), then you can still obtain a letter of recommendation. Ask either the TA or the professor for a recommendation letter (whom you ask will probably depend on how comfortable you feel with each, which will likely be a function of the class size). Many professors have their TA’s write a letter on behalf of a student, but sign it themselves. This practice is legitimate because the TA is serving as a proxy for the professor, who is responsible for the course content. On the other hand, admissions committees do accept letters from graduate students because they understand that at many large universities it is not possible for undergraduates to be observed closely by professors.

    • If you successfully completed an internship or worked at a part-time or summer job that developed skills and knowledge you consider relevant to your graduate school goals, then you may want to ask your immediate supervisor for a recommendation.

  • If you have already graduated do not worry. If this is the case, then whom you ask will depend upon how long you have been out of school. The further back in time your graduation was, the less likely professors will be able to remember you well enough to say something specific about you beyond commenting on a paper you wrote (assuming you still have a copy of it to present to them with your recommendation request.) DO NOT WORRY! Admissions committees look favorably upon “experienced” graduate students as they value their maturity and know they are probably dedicated since they are willing to step outside an established income stream for an extended period of time. Guidelines for people who have already graduated from university:

    • Seek letters from your immediate supervisor at your most recent position, as well as from at least one other position you’ve held. Aim for someone who can verify the skills listed above in whatever setting possible.

    • Seek letters from a supervisor or peer of any professional or volunteer organizations in which you have been active, in particular if you have played a leadership role in them.

Should all recommendation letters come from the same type of person?
Not necessarily. As is evident from the previous comments, whom you ask depends on what your current status is and what accomplishments you wish to highlight (i.e. academic, professional or extra-curricular achievements).

Two “case studies” (I use these two personal examples because I can do so without disclosing information about clients):

  • A successful applicant who did not have any academic recommendations: My wife was accepted to academic MA programs at both of the graduate schools to which she applied (one of which was at an Ivy League university.) She had earned her BA degree fifteen years earlier and had not been in contact with any of her professors since that time. On my advice, she relied exclusively on recommendations from her current supervisor, her previous supervisor and someone with whom she co-led a national volunteer organization. She had a strong GPA, safe test scores and a wealth of experience that included leadership positions at work and in her volunteer activities.

  • A successful applicant with one non-academic recommendation: I applied to graduate school during a year I spent working full time after I earned my BA. I was applying to graduate programs in political science, but I was working as a foreman of a factory. My recommenders included two professors, and the president of the factory, who happened to be my immediate supervisor. I wanted his recommendation because I hoped to demonstrate my analytical ability as applied to a “real world” endeavor as well as my organizational and interpersonal skills.

Specific Advice for LL.M. applicants: Assuming you need three letters of recommendation and that you have work experience, at least one should come from a law faculty member (For Japanese applicants this could be either a professor or a member of the Legal Training and Research Institute.) and one should come from a supervisor who is lawyer or other legal professional and can attest to your abilities as a lawyer/legal expert. The third recommender might be another professor or a lawyer/legal professional. If possible, avoid using someone outside of the legal professsion.


You should not ask for a letter of recommendation from anyone who is not able to evaluate your strengths objectively, which would include:

  • Your peers at work and/or university (unless you have been specifically asked to provide such a recommendation), but senior colleagues at work are fine as substitutes for supervisors

  • Family members

  • Friends and neighbors

  • Anyone in your university or at work who does not directly oversee you or is not someone to whom you report directly. For example, as impressive as it might seem to have a letter of recommendation from the President of Prestigious University or the CEO of Large Powerful Corporation, these people will not be able to say anything meaningful about your abilities, unless you happen to study/work directly under them.

  • Famous people you may happen to know but not actually study or work under. Sure, it would look pretty cool to be able to list Angelina Jolie as a recommender on your application, but unless she was your professor or your immediate supervisor, she cannot say anything specific about your abilities.


Emphasize traits everyone is expected to possess, such as politeness, good attendance, enthusiasm, likeability. It should not emphasize loyalty or the willingness to work overtime hours.

  • Detailed examples of how you perform will demonstrate many or all of these traits indirectly but more concretely.

    • Since you cannot usually control what the recommender writes it is a good idea to deliver your resume/CV with your request so that the writer will have in mind specific accomplishments.


  • Are in a proper authoritative position from which to evaluate you.

  • Can provide specific evidence of the strengths you wish to highlight because they…

  • Have personally seen and evaluated your work already.

REMEMBER! A GOOD RECOMMENDATION LETTER: Emphasizes particular strengths relevant to your graduate degree plans by describing specific examples of accomplishments.


Request letters of recommendation now. The application deadlines for most American academic programs are not until December at the earliest. You should make a respectful request to your desired recommenders now. Asking early is not only polite, but it ensures the writer will have plenty of time to prepare a letter and evaluation that comprehensively describes your strengths. If you cannot yet obtain the evaluation forms from your target schools, just let the recommender know that you will deliver them as soon as possible. Even though the writer may not act upon your request until then, at least they have time to think about you and they will know to budget time for the task once the forms are in their hands.

  • Asking early is especially important if you are either a current university or graduate student. As someone who has written letters of recommendation for my undergraduate students, I can say that your university teachers’ memories of your written work and strengths in the classroom or seminar will probably decline as the time passes between when you were their student and when they actually write the letter. A professor may remember that you were an excellent student and a good writer, but, as time passes, he may not recall particular, unique qualities of your abilities in a classroom setting.

  • If you are asking a previous supervisor for a recommendation, then it is also important to ask early. The sooner someone who is no longer working directly with you begins to refresh his memory of you, the more time he will have to recall specific anecdotes that highlight your strengths.

Give your recommender an up-to-date copy of your resume/CV (For more about resumes/CVs, see here). When you make request for a letter of recommendation, present your recommender with the latest version of your resume/CV. The writer will not need to comment on any aspect of your background outside that experience in which they were in a position to judge your work or academic performance. (For example, if you are currently working, your current supervisor has no reason to mention your outstanding GPA in university.) However, there are two benefits to presenting your resume/CV to your recommender.

  • First, a professional resume/CV makes you look serious, dedicated and prepared.

  • Second, the writer can see which accomplishments you are highlighting for the position in which they are able to evaluate you. If you have given careful thought to whom you ask for a recommendation, then there should be a natural fit between the accomplishments you wish to highlight and the “menu” of possible anecdotes they would choose from in order to illustrate your strengths at that particular position.


In my experience, many Japanese, and other non-native English-speaking, applicants face three particular hurdles to obtaining letters of recommendation.

  1. It is an unfortunate fact for many Japanese applicants that their bosses do not support their decision to leave the workplace and enter graduate school (usually because they do not want to lose a good employee). So, they refuse the request to serve as a recommender. In such situations or ones like it, I suggest:

  • First, request a letter from the next person best able to judge your performance. If no one in a position of some authority is available within your organization you may consider requesting a letter from a senior colleague who has worked closely with you as well as an outside observer, such as a vendor. If you are active in non-work activity that can provide examples of your brainpower, then you should definitely try to obtain a recommendation from someone there.

    • If you are unsure of whom to ask, then you may wish to consider seeking the services of a professional admissions consultant. Since 2001, Adam and I have worked with many clients facing this issue and a part of the advice we provide to our clients is how to handle this.

  • Second, include a letter with your application package that explains your predicament to the admissions committee. You will not be the first applicant with this particular problem, and the readers will appreciate your directness in explaining your situation. Some applications specifically include an optional essay or other space to discuss such issues.

  1. Even when their supervisor, senior colleague, and/or professsor does agree to write a letter, many applicants are told they should write the letter themselves first, and their busy boss will sign it later. Needless to say, this is an ethical problem. I should point out that it is not a problem unique to Japanese applicants because sometimes people here in Japan think it is. Actually it is a common problem for all applicants. What should you do? Here is one solution:

  • First, get as much input from your recommender for the content as you can. This might simply involve asking them standard recommendation questions (see what the recommendation form asks) and recording what they say. If you can get their unique viewpoint on you, it will help to provide something that reflects their real viewpoint and yours.
  • Next, write the letter in your recommender's native language and ask your recommender to review it. Ask your recommender to read it and let you know if he/she agrees with your interpretations of your actions.

  • Next, if applicable, have the letter translated into English by a professional translator. This will at least eliminate the appearence of it being in your own words.

  1. A supervisor agrees to write the letter of recommendation in English, but includes content that is inappropriate for a North American frame of reference. I have reviewed English-language letters of recommendations and have seen that what may count as a strong letter in one context, is considered weak in another context. Generally, this includes emphasizing the traits listed above under “A RECOMMENDATION LETTER SHOULD NOT”. While all of these traits may be admirable, they do not, in and of themselves, focus on the right content. What should you do?

  • If you GIVE THE RECOMMENDER A COPY OF YOUR RESUME/CV when you make the request for a letter, then you increase the chance that the writer will discuss specific accomplishments.

Finally, and this really is not a problem like the above situations, if you have a recommender who is willing to write a letter for you, but not in English, simply get it translated. Send the original along with the translation. Again only do this in the case where the original is written by the recommender. If the school requires it, you might need to send a certified translation. In Japan, one could get such certification through the Notary Public at the US Embassy in Tokyo.

For questions regarding this post, please contact me at h.steven.green@gmail.com. To learn more about my graduate admissions consulting services, please click here.
- H. Steven ("Steve") Green, グリーン・ハロルド・スティーブン

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