Getting an excellent letter of recommendation: the sure-fire approach

Davis: Hey everybody, this is GRE Bites. My name is Davis, and I’m an educator with over ten years of experience.

Orion: And I’m Orion, the founder of StellarGRE.

Davis: We’re here to bring you your weekly bite-sized episode on GRE prep and grad school admissions. Check out our top-rated GRE self-study program at And don’t forget, you can use the code “BITES” for 10% off any membership.

Alright, so the question of the day is: Letters of recommendation for getting into grad school. How do you go about it? Orion, what’s your recommendation on the process of obtaining a good letter of recommendation?

Orion: It’s a great question. It is an essential element of almost every graduate school application. Most programs require three letters of recommendation, and I’m going to talk about how to go about getting them. First of all, you have to plan ahead. The people from whom you’re asking these letters are genuinely busy professionals. This is a professional courtesy they’re offering you. They’re not getting paid for their time, so it’s a good idea to give them as much warning as you can and to make the process as easy as possible for them.

Davis: Is the typical candidate pool for letters of recommendation comprised of previous professors, right?

Orion: It depends on how long you’ve been out of undergrad. If you just graduated from your undergraduate program a few years ago, it makes sense to get at least a couple of letters of recommendation from former professors. But if you’ve been out of school for 10 years, that’s probably not the case. There’s also a balance to consider: for more academic programs, like PhDs, you’d generally want more academic letters of recommendation. For other programs, like law or MBA programs, it might be more useful to get letters of recommendation from professional supervisors.

Davis: Great. So, let’s say I’ve chosen the people I want to ask for a letter of recommendation. I make sure I’ve planned in advance and have plenty of time. I’ve asked them, but now do I give them hints? Do I provide an outline of what I’m looking for? How does this work even better?

Orion: So, once you reach out to your prospective recommenders and they agree to write you a letter, your response should be something like this: “Great! I’m so happy that you’ve decided to do this. I have taken the liberty of drafting the letter for you. You’ll find it attached. Feel free to change anything that you want. I know that you’re a busy professional, and I wanted to make this as easy for you as possible.”

Now, when I recommend that students take this approach, some are taken aback. They ask, “Are you suggesting that we should write our own letters of recommendation?” On some level, my answer is yes. There are a few reasons for this. As soon as I got to grad school, nearly every single professor and supervisor asked me to do just that.

At a certain level, the people from whom you are seeking these letters will likely ask you to do this anyway. They might have several reasons: for one, they are indeed very busy. But also, they might not know you as well as you know yourself. They receive such requests dozens of times a semester and don’t have the opportunity to form deep relationships with all the students they teach. If they’re willing to write you a letter, they’re indicating that they like you and want to help you succeed. You can assist them by drafting a letter that provides more insight into who you are than what they might currently know. Of course, the understanding is that they can modify anything they want, especially since it will bear their name and signature at the end. This approach is just a way to help them along.

Davis: That makes a lot of sense. I’ve had some experience with the same thing. I do have a question: In this draft letter that you’re sending to them, with the proviso that they can change anything they want, of course, are you also addressing particulars about the program to which you’re looking to apply in that draft letter?

Orion: I think that a good letter of recommendation has three parts. We can think of them as three separate paragraphs. The first paragraph is essentially about the recommender. We need to know who this person is. What is their position, experience, and status? This way, I can gauge the extent to which I should take their word seriously. The first paragraph is very easy for the recommender to write since it’s all about them. The next two paragraphs are about you, but they address slightly different capacities.

I would encourage you to have one paragraph that showcases either your academic or professional excellence. So, if you’re asking a professor for a recommendation, this person should discuss, for instance, your honors thesis, or the way you managed the final project, or a presentation you gave to the class. They should provide specific details to demonstrate that you did an excellent job and that you went above and beyond the academic expectations. If it’s a professional recommender, they might detail a problem faced at work and how you overcame it. These examples should be more demonstrative and possibly quantitative, aiming to highlight your excellence.

Now, the third paragraph is really important and often overlooked, which is that it should be some sort of anecdote that shares and demonstrates a positive personality characteristic of you. It’s all well and good for you to be competent, but there are a lot of competent people that we might not ever want to share a room with, let’s put it that way. The way that grad school works is that you’re being picked for a cohort for goodness of fit.

So, people have to like you, and they have to want to work with you closely, sometimes for years. And if you show a paragraph that demonstrates a positive personality attribute—maybe you’re easygoing, maybe you’re friendly, maybe you are attentive to detail, maybe you are considerate—and there’s some sort of anecdote that you can share that manifests and demonstrates that attribute, people are going to see a bit more of a human side of you, and it’s going to make it easier to select you from a pool of, let’s face it, every other letter is going to talk about how competent the student in question is.

So, if you have to choose among applicants where everyone is competent, why not choose the friendly, competent person, or the considerate, competent person, or the hardworking, competent person, etc.? So that’s what I recommend doing: give those recommenders plenty of time—at least a month or two—to get this process settled.

Davis: That really helps. So, three paragraphs: first is about the recommender. In your draft, you’re supplying some, you know, mock-ups in your outline for the professor or the professional. They can change or adjust that. The second one is about competency, and the third one is about a positive personality trait that sets you up as someone good to work with and join for a good fit.

Orion: You got it.

Davis: Thanks, Orion, for that feedback. I hope it helps anyone who’s struggling, looking, or investigating how to get letters of recommendation out and might be seeking a good strategy.

Thanks, everybody, for tuning in. We’ll be back next week with another bite-sized episode of GRE Bites. If you have a topic you’d like discussed on a future episode, let us know at And if you’re ready to take your prep to the next level, check out our top-rated GRE self-study program at You can use the code “BITES” for 10% off all memberships there. Talk to you soon.

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