Build Your Network of Potential Letter Writers

Creating a pool of potential letter writers starts with building authentic connections with others throughout your time on campus. Start with people you already know. Get to know your professors and academic advisors, professionals in your field, and work supervisors and colleagues. Share your personal and professional goals. Seek their advice as you gain experience. Keep them updated on your plans. Make sure they understand the motivation behind your professional goals. The strongest letters will be written by those who know you the best and can speak to your abilities in the classroom or in work, volunteer, or lab settings.  What the letter writer can say about you is much more important than "who" the letter writer is. A letter from someone well-respected in the field is only useful if the person knows your abilities well.  

Consider the Content

The quality of the letter is important. Think about individuals who can evaluate your potential for success in the field, people who can attest to your academic ability, work ethic, drive for research and discovery, resiliency, and motivation. The distinctions of your letter writer are not as important as what that person can write about you—remember, it is you that is trying to get admitted, not your evaluator.

The number and type of letters you will need varies. Double check what your schools of interest require. Most schools require a minimum of three letters of evaluation, including at least one from someone in your academic department.

Approach Letter Writers

When approaching letter writers, ask if they are willing to write a positive letter in support of your application. If they agree, it is helpful to offer a meeting, or materials such as an unofficial transcript, résumé/CV, personal statement, or other information that will be included in your application. Most evaluators will only know you in one context, so providing additional information helps them have a more holistic understanding of you and things you are doing. Provide them with what they feel is necessary to write a strong letter.

Be sure to provide writers with plenty of time to compose a thoughtful letter. Requesting a letter early in the application process is likely to improve the quality of your letter. Remember your letter writer may receive requests from several other people. They may have many letters to compose on a tight timeline.

Store Letters

As you request letters of recommendation, it is important to think about how you plan to store and access the letters when needed.  An online letter storing service, like Interfolio's Dossier, can be a good option for this purpose before, during, and even after the application process.  This service can confidentially store the letters submitted by your letter writers and allow you to send them as needed at any time.

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Thanking Letter Writers

Remember that your letter writers take time out of their schedules to contribute to your application. Make sure to thank them for their efforts, and keep them updated on your progress. A simple email message will be much appreciated.

Keep Letter Writers and Letters Updated

Once your letters are written, be sure to keep in contact with your letter writers. Inform them of your application status, career plans, and activities that will help them update your letter periodically so that it best reflects your current readiness for advanced study.  This is particularly important if you plan to use the letter for multiple application cycles. 

Letters written immediately preceding the application submission are ideal, however, letters composed within two years of your application date can be used. Consider soliciting updated letters from your letter writers with each new application cycle so that they accurately reflect your current abilities and qualities.