Letters of recommendation are required for almost every graduate, medical and other professional school application and are a very important part of the application process. They are also important for post- baccalaureate programs and some internship opportunities. Two recent trends have made letters of recommendation much more consequential in the evaluation process, especially for program admission. The first is that average GPAs and test scores for program applicants have been steadily rising, making it more difficult to differentiate candidates on that basis alone. The second is that most programs have begun to adopt a more holistic review process whereby they are evaluating numerous competencies including communication, leadership, service, critical thinking, problem solving, self knowledge, teamwork, and ethical responsibility. This information cannot be gleaned from grades and test scores. Admissions committees rely on recommendation letters to gather data on these competencies for promising candidates. With this in mind, remember that the best letters are the ones that actually address these competencies, rather than just say something about your course performance, which can be easily assessed from your transcript. Below are some of the most commonly asked questions about requesting recommendation letters.

How many letters of recommendation do I need?

Depending on the exact program or opportunity you will be asked to provide anywhere between 2 and 5 letters, with most programs requiring 3 letters. Medical schools will accept up to 5 letters (read: you should try to secure 5 letters that provide complementary and comprehensive information about you as a candidate). Only send the number of letters that is requested by the specific program.

Whom should I ask for letters of recommendation?

The better letter writers are professors who know you well and can provide an objective and comprehensive evaluation of your competencies and your ability to perform well in this next stage in your career. Admissions committees know to look for sign that the letter writer knows you well, has specific expertise in your field, has an advanced degree in the discipline of the program to which you are applying (i.e. they know what it takes to succeed in this discipline), has evaluated your performance either in coursework, in lab research, or in clinical internship, and has a track record of evaluating a large number of applicants to similar opportunities (i.e. can provide an objective ranking of your candidacy relevant to other applicants). For graduate school, letters from teaching assistants, coaches, internship coordinators, students, or individuals without advanced or professional degrees are not recommended and will carry less weight than letters from professors. For any and all opportunities you should avoid getting letters from family members or political figures and the like. These kinds of letters can do more damage than good. 

How do I approach professors about writing letters?

The first step is to begin cultivating relationships with multiple faculty members from the day you arrive on campus. Be sure to read our guide to cultivating relationships with professors. When the time comes for you to prepare your application, make a list of professors you have cultivated strong relationships with, and who will be your best advocates. Then email each of them to set up an appointment to discuss your request in person. Do not make the request via email, if possible. Be prepared to articulate your interest and reasons for attending graduate school. Remember that letters of recommendation are written strictly on a voluntary basis. The best approach is to ask potential letter writers if they are willing to write you a strong letter. If you sense reluctance or the answer is no, ask someone else. Make sure to bring all relevant materials with you and include them also in the email. This can include your resume, your unofficial transcript, your personal statement drafts, and a summary of your interactions with the professor. Depending on how well the professor knows you and whether they ask to provide additional information, you can provide a list of bullet points of particular topics you hope they can address in the letter. Under no circumstances, however, should you offer to write a draft of the letter for the professor. If you are asked to do so for any reason, you should decline politely and say that you have been instructed not to do so by our program. You can then look elsewhere for a letter.

When should I approach letter writers?

Professors are generally happy to write a letter on your behalf, however, they are usually very busy and involved in numerous teaching, research and service activities.. Be considerate of your letter writers’ time and approach them at least two months before you need the letter. Giving them appropriate lead time is not only courteous and respectful, but it also increases the likelihood that the letter will be a high quality letter.

What if I plan to take some time off before I go to graduate or medical school?

If you plan to take some time off before going to graduate or medical school, and worry that memory of you may not be fresh in your professor’s mind anymore, there are two approaches you can consider. The first strategy is to ask the professor to provide you with a general purpose letter of recommendation that you can include in your file (or letter service like Interfolio) and you can ask them to update it when you’re closer to applying. The second strategy is to use that time off to continue to cultivate the relationship with the professor so that they are aware of your growth during that period, and then you can meet with them closer to the time of application and ask for a more comprehensive letter that includes not only your academic interactions but the mentoring interactions you’ve had since graduation and how those interactions have shed light on your competencies. 

How can I get a high quality letter of recommendation?

Since your best letters will come from those who know you well, make an effort to get to know your professors well. Review the guide on cultivating relationships with faculty. A few ways you can do this are to be involved in discussions in class, select upper level small size classes where you can have more meaningful interactions with the professor, take more than one class with the same professor, regularly attend office hours, volunteer for Bio199 lab research with the professor, or take on optional projects under the professor’s supervision. Additionally, you should provide your letter writer with ample information about you. This way, you will get a letter that includes concrete details about you instead of a letter that contains only your grade, which is of limited value to admissions committees.

The letter writer should make it clear how they know you and how well and over what period of time. The writer should be as specific as possible about your relevant academic competencies and personal attributes. The letter writer is usually instructed to put you in perspective with other students they have recommended in the past, such as, “I have taught at UC Irvine for X years and during that time have recommended X# for grad school. I put this student in the top X percent.” The more detailed a letter, the more it reflects the writer’s direct knowledge of your work and potential and the more credible it will appear to members of the admissions committee.

If you ask a faculty member to write you a letter, they may not feel comfortable saying “no” even if they don’t feel able to write a strong endorsement. Plan ahead, don’t press them, and be sure to give them another option. Rather than asking if they’d write you a letter, you can ask if they feel they know you and your work well enough to write a very strong letter. This allows them a graceful out and saves you from having a letter with faint praise or a letter without substance. 

Should I ask the professor to address a weakness in my application?

Whether letter writers should attempt to address weaknesses in your application is a tricky issue. For example, if you received a low Quantitative GRE score due to a family crisis immediately before the test date, your letter writer might mention this and argue that the “A” you received in Statistics is a better measure of your quantitative skill. This strategy can be very helpful in some situations, but it is also a double-edged sword that can draw attention to weaknesses in your application. Consider the pros and cons and discuss this approach with your letter writer before adopting such a strategy — each situation is unique, and there is no single best way to proceed.

Can I ask a graduate student or teaching assistant for a letter?

While technically you can, it is generally a rule to have letters written by professors rather than graduate teaching assistants (TAs). The professor may be in a better position to evaluate you and to compare you to current and previous classes of students. While TAs will often write fine letters and frequently write parts or all of letters which professors sign or co-sign, having a letter written and signed only by the TA may not do much to help your case. That said, it is better to have a strong letter from a graduate student than a letter from a professor that says little or nothing. Ultimately, because some schools specifically state that they will only accept letters from professors, it is in your best interest to get to know your professors well enough so that they can write a strong recommendation letter for you. If it’s absolutely necessary to get a letter from a graduate student, strategize with the student to have them draft the letter, ask the professor to edit and co-sign, ensuring that the language used is reflective of the joint opinion (e.g. using “we” instead of “I”). If you are doing research in a lab, a professor may ask your graduate student or postdoctoral supervisor to provide some input into the letter but they ultimately should be the one signing or co-signing it.

Do graduate or medical schools care if letters are confidential or not?

Yes! In general, graduate programs prefer confidential letters. Admissions committees recognize that it displays more confidence on the part of the applicant if letters are confidential (meaning that you cannot see or read the letters). Medical schools also require confidential letters. Under no circumstances will AMCAS provide applicants access to their letters of evaluation.

Should I use a Letter Service?

A Letter Service, such as Interfolio or Virtual Evals, will store your letters of recommendation in one place and send them to schools on your behalf. Your letter writers will write one letter and fill out one form rather than filling out a different form for every application. You will need to inform your letter writers of the letter writing guidelines for the Letter Service you plan to use (see your letter service’s website or contact them directly for more information). AMCAS has its own letter service (AMCAS Letter Writer Application), which is used by most medical schools in the U.S. Only a handful of U.S. medical schools do not participate in the AMCAS letter service. Note that Interfolio can be properly set up to send your letters to AMCAS but it may take up to 3 business days to be marked as received. 

What information do my letter writers need to write good letters?

You can help your recommenders write the best letters letters by giving each of them a portfolio comprised of:

  • A cover note that includes:
    • Information on how to get in touch with you in case they need to reach you
    • A short summary document listing the duration and manner of your interactions (e.g. courses, research, volunteering, etc.)
    • Your career aspirations and the type of program you’re applying for
    • A list of schools and programs to which you are applying
    • Skills and experiences you would like emphasized in the letter, e.g. ability to communicate, self-confidence, willingness to accept responsibility, ability to handle conflict, leadership experience and potential, interpersonal skills, creativity, etc… Do not just list skills but provide specific examples that can be used in the letter to demonstrate these skills. 
    • Check your specific graduate program’s letter of recommendation guidelines. If there is specific information being requested, advise your letter writer to include this information.
    • Links to or information on where they can submit the letters
    • Due dates for the letters with the earliest due date at the top
    • Any other information that is relevant
  • Unofficial transcripts, nothing any courses you took with them
  • A draft of your personal statements
  • If applicable, a copy of your best work in the course, paper, lab evaluation, project, etc.
  • Your up-to-date resume
  • Any other information the professor specifically has requested.