Applying to Graduate School 101: How do I request a reference letter?

A close up view of a chemical in Emory's Atwood Chemistry Center.
A close up view of a chemical in Emory’s Atwood Chemistry Center.

This Fall, we are publishing a special series of blog posts about applying to graduate school–at Emory and in general. Our goal is to demystify the application process and help applicants feel confident as they seek a home for their graduate studies. This post provides tips on requesting reference letters to accompany your application.

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Hi, Dr. H,

Can you write a reference for me? It’s due next week. I loved your class!

Katie

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Katie, Dr. H is not amused.

It’s hard to ask faculty for reference letters. You are literally asking them to say nice things about you, on paper, and then submit this nice note to strangers for review. And your future seems to kind of depend on what they say.

Make it easy for yourself and your recommenders. Send an email to your intended letter writer that includes the following information:

  • What you are asking for, including where you are applying and why
  • How they know you (including full name and course titles, if applicable)
  • Deadline for submission (send EARLY!)
  • Please and Thank You
  • Any materials (resume, personal statement, etc.) that the letter writer might need to review before writing

Use your judgement to tailor your request to specific faculty, but those are the basics. If you know someone really, really well, you might not need to offer a lot of specifics about how they know you. But it is still helpful to tell them why you are asking for the letter–what story can they tell about you that will help convince an admissions committee that you will be an awesome grad student?

Most faculty will want at least 2-3 weeks to complete a letter. Some might need longer. For Emory Chemistry, you can submit requests for letters as early as September 1st (when our application goes live) and we will pair them with your application as they arrive. You will need to indicate the contact information (email and snail mail address) of your letter writers to submit your application, so you’ll want to make sure your writers already know that you’re listing them even if they plan to submit the letter at a later date. We will send your writers a direct request for their letter via email to keep the correspondence confidential.

One thing that can confuse applicants is whether or not they should waive their right to review their reference letters. It is your legal right to review letters submitted on your behalf. Graduate schools give students the opportunity to waive this right to help ensure that faculty feel comfortable writing a thorough and honest letter. Even if faculty have nothing but nice things to say, they may not want you to be looking over their shoulder! Generally, admissions representatives might assume that letters will be more honest and comprehensive when a student waives their right of review, so it is a good idea to do this if you feel comfortable. Faculty might also disclose statistics related to OTHER students (such as your grade compared to others or a class ranking) in a confidential letter that they could not include in a letter that you would have access to in order to protect student privacy.

In terms of who to ask for letters, the key criteria is to choose people who know you well. This might include:

  • instructors from college courses
  • research supervisors
  • internship supervisors
  • academic advisors

Generally, each letter should come from someone who interacted with you in college (not earlier). For students applying to graduate school after being in the workforce, we are happy to review letters from people familiar with your college or work experience. Letters from friends, neighbors, and family are not useful (in the rare case that you were taught or supervised by someone in one of these categories, the letter should address these unique circumstances.)

It’s also helpful if letters can speak to your chemistry experience–three letters from non-chemistry professors might make it difficult for us to get a full picture of your preparation. Finally, keep in mind that it’s important to ask for letters from someone in a leadership role–a letter from your research supervisor is more appropriate than a letter from the graduate student who trained you on an instrument. If that graduate student really does know your work, you might ask them if it is okay to include them as a reference when you send that polite email to your P.I. to ask for the letter. For instance: “I worked closely with NAME on PROJECT and they are willing to provide you with details about my progress.”

Finally, it might be helpful to know that it is generally considered good practice for college faculty to decline to write a letter if they cannot be positive. This doesn’t mean that letters can’t provide real critique, but if a faculty member does not feel you are prepared for graduate school or actually didn’t enjoy working with you, custom dictates that they would decline to write a letter for you rather than sending a negative reference. This is a CUSTOM not a RULE. If you are in doubt as to whether a letter will be positive, you should have a professional conversation with your possible referee to ask if they would be willing to write you a supportive letter. If not, thank them for their time and, if you are comfortable, ask them for their advice on how you might improve your work so that they will feel comfortable writing for you in future.

Reference letters are a key component of your application. Request them early and thoughtfully. For the chemistry graduate program at Emory, we require three letters and allow up to four.

Additional Resources:

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Ready to apply? Visit chemistry.emory.edu/apply. Applications are due by December 1st, 2018 for entry in Fall 2019.

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