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Sign Me Up! Letters that Matter

Letters of Recommendation for Academic Applications

As you sit before your computer, probably in the evening after you’ve completed a full day of work, contemplating which letter of recommendation you should submit with your application, it can be overwhelming to know which letter to choose and to decide if it’s any good. Although just about everyone’s letter of recommendation is going to be positive, there are some noteworthy and eye-catching qualities to the very best letters that can actually help you improve the chances of receiving an interview invitation. Here are a few ideas to make the most out of your letters and to consider when requesting them.

Since most applications request at least three letters of recommendation to submit with the application, there are a variety of ways a letter can turn out. And equally so, there are a number of different ways the writer can approach the content. Some letters are more general, mentioning only that the student attended the university and their academic performance, without adding details of the student’s character. Most often, the university’s dean, who in all reality knows nothing about you, but is required to write this formal document, writes in this general style. If you’re more fortunate, your letter will include some details about your character as a student, such as hard-working, cooperative, or dedicated. These better letters help the admissions board begin to make connections about you using the application and personal statement as well. They’ll be looking for consistencies in your background as well as strengths that would contribute to the program. But, the very best letters do more than this. The best letters take the time to provide examples of your work ethic, how you interacted with peers or patients, and what your future goals include. While there are no specific requirements about what should be included in these very best letters, they need to compliment the other application components and it’s important that the admissions committee is able to glean more about you as a person.

Despite the great diversity in the quality and tone of a letter of recommendation, there are some things you can do to help ensure you get the best one possible. Here are my top suggestions when preparing to request letters of recommendation.

First, START EARLY! Don’t wait until the last minute to request a letter. Waiting to the last minute risks receiving a low-quality letter or even being denied by the writer. Starting early also gives you the opportunity to discuss the letter with the signer if you think it needs revisions as well as a chance to ask an alternate signer.

Before requesting a letter of recommendation…

1) Have your curriculum vitae (or resume) updated and available for the writer to review. Don’t wait for them to request this from you, go ahead and hand it over when you’re asking. You can highlight notable experiences as well for their reference.

2) If at all possible, have your statement of purpose available as well and ready for the writer to read. This will help them better understand your background and future goals.

3) If your statement of purpose is not complete, then provide a clear, concise, bullet list of highlights from your academic and professional career as well any other accomplishments that you think will help them understand your strengths and to include in the letter of recommendation.

When you’re ready to speak with your letter signer, consider asking these questions.

1) I have a statement of purpose and curriculum vitae available for you to review when writing my letter of

recommendation, but would you like me to draft a letter for you to consider as well…one that you can add to or edit?

2) Are you open to me writing the letter of recommendation for you to sign or would you prefer to write it yourself?

3) What can I provide or do to help you write a great letter?

4) This program is very important to me and I would appreciate a positive letter of recommendation. Do you feel comfortable writing a flattering (or glowing, or positive…) letter about me?

5) Is it's ok if we add ____ to my letter as well because____?

6) Would you be willing to share a copy of the letter with me as well when you are ready to submit it online?

When the letter of recommendation is complete, be sure to write a kind thank you note for the signer and voice your appreciation for their time and kind words. Always be humble and grateful for those who are willing to help you in your journey. And as always, I’m here to help you write those outstanding letters of recommendation that get your application noticed. Feel free to contact me for more information at

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