How to Get Great Letters of Recommendation

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How to Get Great Letters of Recommendation


Kendra Redmond, Editor (as the interviewer)

Q&A with Osase Omoruyi from Harvard University

Osase Omoruyi is a graduate student in the Department of Astronomy at Harvard University. Since 2020 she’s led workshops for the Women+ of Color Project on getting great letters of recommendation for grad school.

Question: What role do letters of recommendation play in the admissions process?

Graduate schools want to hear about your potential to succeed in the program. For research-based programs, that means knowing whether you can complete a research project. Letters are an opportunity for your research advisors, professors, or supervisors to speak to this as well as your work ethic, passion for research, and potential to contribute to the field.

Programs also want to hear about your academic accomplishments. Through letters, professors or academic advisors can speak to your growth and capacity to learn in a way that might not be reflected in your transcripts.

Lastly, programs want to hear about you as a person. Letters can highlight the qualities, abilities, and skills—such as maturity, grit, and leadership—that demonstrate your likelihood to thrive in the program and beyond.

Question: Who should applicants ask to write their letters?

If you’re applying to a research-based program, your most important letters will be from research supervisors. If you haven’t done a lot of research, letters from professors who have supervised you during lab classes or hands-on class projects can also speak to your potential.

It’s good to have one or more letters from classroom professors or academic advisors who know you well and have seen you grow and improve over the years. If you’ve been out of school for a while, try to get a letter from the supervisor at your most recent and most impactful job.

Question: What can students do to make sure their letters are personal and meaningful?

Send each recommender your CV, personal statement, and a page highlighting your relationship. For a research advisor, this might include when you did research together, the project, your contributions, the equipment you used, and related presentations or papers. For a class professor or academic advisor, this might include the classes you took from them, your grades, notable projects or presentations, and growth in your academic performance. In both cases, note experiences and personal characteristics you’d like the writer to reference in the letter.

Question: What’s a good timeline for requesting letters?

Send an email a few months before your application deadline and ask, “Would you feel comfortable writing me a very strong letter of recommendation for graduate programs?” If they say yes, great! If not, ask someone else. You only want letters from those interested in your success.

About four weeks out, send your letter writers a list of the programs you’re applying to and the deadlines. Also include your personal statement, résumé or CV, and the page highlighting your relationship. Send reminders about a week before the deadline, if necessary. Then send thank yous and keep your writers updated on your success.

Question: What else should students know?

Even if you have excellent letters of recommendation, things may not go your way. Someone with okay letters whose advisor knows someone on the admissions committee may have an edge over you. You can do everything right and still not get in, unfortunately. The important thing is to give it your best effort and make sure nothing is left in your court.

This piece is adapted from an article published in the 2022 issue of GradSchoolShopper magazine.

The Women+ of Color Project provides a platform for women of color to interact and learn best practices for applying to graduate school, surviving graduate school, maintaining research productivity, and growing their academic careers.

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Get more tips on letters of recommendation in the full-length version of this article, available on


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