Getting Great Letters of Recommendation

One factor that will play into the admission officers’ decisions is the quality of your letters of recommendation.  Here’s how to ensure that you secure letters that impress.

Select the right recommenders

  • If you are applying right out of undergrad or are a recent graduate, you’ll want to have one academic reference and one professional reference.
  • These need to be people who know you well!
  • For professors, pick a professor with whom you’ve done independent studies or research.  Note, if you can manage to do either of these things with a professor you’ve also taken a class with, even better.  Another note, if you have not done any independent studies or conducted research yet, follow the links and get cracking!

Ask early and politely 

  • If you are asking a professor who you are currently in a class with or doing research with, it is probably best to ask in person.
  • If, however, you haven’t spoken to the professor in a semester or two or need to reach out to a past supervisor for a professional reference, write a nice, not-overly-needy email that also leaves them an out if they’re too busy.
  • e.g.
    • Professor Smith,
      As the time for applying to graduate programs draws nearer, I have begun to think of faculty members who can best attest to my work-ethic, ambitions, and character, both as a student and also as a person.  I feel that you are undoubtedly one of the professors who knows me best and can honestly answer questions surrounding the above.  Since this is the case, I would be honored if you would be willing to write me a letter of recommendation to supplement my applications.
      If you are up for it, I can send over my resume, transcripts, and essays as materials to draw from.  I have a lot of time before anything is due, I just wanted to give you ample time, especially since the beginning of the semester can be so hectic.  I would be more than happy to meet in person to discuss things if you want to.
      If you find yourself too busy, I completely understand.  Either way, thank you so much for your time and I hope to hear back from you soon.
      All the best,
  • Be sure to send this type of message early (months in advance) in order to 1) get the ball rolling, 2) give yourself a chance to find someone else if this person is unable to write on your behalf, and obviously 3) give them ample time to write it.
  • Once your recommenders (hopefully) accept, be sure to supply them with your most current resume, a list of your activities, your most current transcripts, any essay you’ve written so far for the application (a benefit to starting early!), and a few bullet points about what the school is looking for in an applicant (just a little bit of personal research and yield this and it’ll help your recommenders tailor his/her recommendation to the school).

Supply the due date…kind of

  • Be sure to give your recommenders a due date that you need the recommendation in by, but don’t give them THE due date.  Things come up.  You don’t want to be scrambling and worrying if your recommenders wait until the last minute.  Give them a date a few days (or even a week) before the final deadline to give yourself peace of mind.


  • Do not be shy about checking in on your recommenders if you haven’t heard from them in awhile.  Every couple of weeks is fine.  Something like this should work:
    • Professor/Supervisor Smith,

      Just making sure everything is still going smoothly with the recs.  If you need any additional information or clarification just let me know.

      Again, thank you so much for everything.

      All the best,


  • DO NOT take this to the extreme and start to hound your recommenders.  This will just annoy them and rush them, resulting in a worse letter for you either way.

Use the “batch” method

  • Hopefully, you are applying to more than 1 or 2 b-schools.  Usually, applicants shoot for 6-8.  That is a lot of recommendations to write, especially if the schools have different prompts (which some have).  Group your schools together based on when the applications are due and send them to your recommenders in batches.  For example, here are some of the deadlines for this past application year:
  • Harvard Business School (Sep 9)

    Yale SOM (Sep 18)

    MIT (Sep 23)

    Stanford GSB (Oct 1)

    Cornell (Johnson)  (Oct 1)

    UPenn (Wharton) (Oct 1)

    NYU (October 15) 

    Columbia (Jan 7)

  • So, you could let your recommenders know of your plan to apply to all of these schools during your early correspondence regarding your application, but then segment your schools by date and inform your recommenders accordingly.  For example, you could have your recommenders focus on Harvard, Yale, and MIT first, then move on to Stanford, Cornell, Wharton, and NYU, and then come back and focus on Columbia last.  Breaking them up like this just makes it more manageable for your recommenders and is a more organized process than dumping 8 schools on them at once and hoping they keep the dates straight.

Tell them about copy and paste

  • Inform your recommenders that while you need each application tailored to each school, it is also OK to reuse pieces of your recommendation from one school in another application when the applications overlap.  Most recommenders will do this anyway, but it can also help quell their fears about writing 8 recommendations that are all supposed to be stellar.

Waive your right to view

  • When you submit your recommenders’ names and emails to the schools you’re applying to, you’ll be asked if you wish to waive your right to view the recommendation or not.  Waive it.  You do not want these schools thinking you had any part in crafting your own recommendation, and waiving your right to view the recommendation helps you in that regard.

Thank, thank, thank

  • Throughout the process, be sure to let your recommenders know just how thankful you are of all the work they’re doing for you and how important that is to you.  Send a small thank you after each submission (you’ll get an email from the school you’re applying to each time a letter is submitted on your behalf), and once they submit all of your recommendations, send the big thank you!  I recommend Wine Country Gift Baskets.  You can find some great thank you baskets for pretty cheap.  This giant chocolate basket is only $20, well worth it to show your appreciation.


  • After putting so much work into your recommendations, your recommenders now kind of have a stake in your admissions.  They want to know if their hard work paid off as much as yours.  Be sure to let them know where you are admitted and, ultimately, where you elect to attend.



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