Letters of Recommendation for Graduate School: A Necessary Guide & Sample

While most of the reviewing and editing requests we get at phdstatementsofpurpose are for Statements of Purpose, Personal Statements, Letters of Intent; Motivation Letters and Academic CV, we’ve received so many queries about Letters of Recommendation especially this application cycle.

Most of these queries are from international students (not professors or professional references).

And it’s understandable.

Generally, admission essays are not required when making university application to graduate schools/universities outside the USA and parts of Europe so some recommenders are not familiar with these types of essays and others may be too busy to write.

So this article answers commonly asked questions about how to write Letters of Recommendation for Graduate School, which include the following;

  1. What’s a letter of recommendation?
  2. Who do I ask for a letter of recommendation?
  3. How do I ask for a letter of recommendation?
  4. What’s the format of a letter of recommendation?
  5. Can I write/draft my own letter of recommendation?

What’s a Letter of Recommendation?

Basically, letters of recommendation are letters addressed to the graduate school admission committee offering insights about the applicants’ ability and potential as a graduate school student.

So if you’re a student gathering your university application materials, make sure you pay particular attention to this crucial component.

Who do I ask for a letter of recommendation?

As with any other admission materials you’ll be asked for, the first place to start is at the program website. While the requirements may be generally similar, you need to check that you’re only providing what’s required and in the right format.

Stanford University for instance asks that the letters of recommendation are from academic or professional references “who know you well and are able to evaluate your potential for graduate study.”

Generally, you’ll be required to supply two or three letters of recommendation.

It’s vitally important to choose the right individual to vouch for your abilities and tilt the scale in your favor during the rigorous admission vetting.

  1. The recommenders should be academic/professional references
  2. They should know you well.
  3. Ideally, one of the references should be from a university professor familiar with your academic work.
  4. A supervisor from an internship or a professional colleague may also write your letters of recommendation.
  5. A letter of recommendation may not be written by a personal friend or family member.

How do I ask someone to write my letters of recommendation?

This image captures a commonly asked question as to how to appropriately ask for a letter of recommendation.

This is in fact one of the most asked questions regarding letters of recommendations.

We propose that you identify your references early and approach them courteously.

We found the Stanford’s letters of recommendation guide tips to be very useful.

  1. Plan early and communicate with your references well in advance to give them time to write insightful and compelling letters. This will also show that you value their time. Six months is recommended.
  2. Initiate contact in a personalized way. Whether you’re reaching out in person, via a call/video, email etc, start by thanking them for their mentorship and support and then explain your intention to apply for graduate school.
  3. Provide your recommenders with context and information. This will allow them to tailor your letter to the programs requirements and accentuate the most relevant attributes. Provide specific details about the program including timelines.
  4. Request them to write your letters of recommendations in a direct, respectful way.
  5. Provide all relevant materials. You can send your resume, transcripts, SOP/PS, and projects you’ve worked on together to help them create an individualised, specific LOR. If the program provides specific prompts to follow when writing the LOR, send them as well.
  6. Follow up with the recommenders and engage them as needed.

Say thank you.

What’s the format of a letter of recommendation?

This may vary from university to university. Stanford for instance requires that the recommender fill out a Recommendation Form

This is followed by a write-up covering the following:

Introduction: State the applicant’s name, the program you’re recommending him/her for, the capacity and duration you’ve known him or her.

Please write candidly about the applicant’s qualifications, potential to carry on advanced study in the field specified, intellectual independence, capability for analytical thinking, ability to organize and express ideas clearly, and potential for teaching. Descriptions of significant actions, accomplishments, character, and personal qualities related to scholarly achievement are particularly helpful.”

General Format & Guide

The General Format of a recommendation letter is as follows:

Introduction: State the applicant’s name, the program you’re recommending him/her for, the capacity and duration you’ve known him or her.

Example: “I am writing in support of the application of XXX who is seeking admission to the Graduate Program in the XXX department. I have known him for 2 years as his professor and lecturer in X, Y, & Z at XXX Institute. During this period, I have observed him mature in leaps and bounds to levels that make him a supremely qualified candidate for the program”

Body: Vouch for the applicant’s academic/professional credentials. Give specific examples/projects that can help the admission committee get an insight into the applicants ability.

Example: “I instructed XXX in the YYY, where his performance stood out, achieving an impressive A grade in the YYY course, placing him in the top 2% of the class of 200 students. His work in the YYY Lab revealed his exceptional mental acuity as he emerged as the top student in this class.

I chaired the panel in which XXX presented on his work titled “DDD” as part of his Lab project in his third year. His thorough understanding of concepts was in display. The project is a testament to his technical prowess as he used FFF to extract CCC from DDD images. When we returned the project for improvement, he swiftly integrated our recommendations and made further improvements, showing himself to be a diligent student open to learning and growing.

Vouch for the applicant’s non-academic/non-professional credentials:

XXX will need more than stellar academic credentials and lab experience to excel as a graduate student. Luckily, he packs other attributes in good measure as well. During YYY Project, he took on the team leader role and orchestrated seamless collaboration among team members. His presentation on this project was captivating and showcased his strong verbal and non-verbal communication.

Conclusion: Reiterate the applicant’s suitability for the program.

Example: “XXX is an exceptional candidate for your Graduate Program given his impressive academic record, research and laboratory experience and I am therefore confident that he will thrive in your program and make significant contributions to your academic community.

Please feel free to contact me for further information.”

Can I write/draft my own recommendation letter?

This is also among the most asked questions especially on Reddit

Sometimes professors are too busy or overwhelmed with writing LOR. Others may not be familiar with how to write a good LOR and still some may feel that the particular student is better placed to provide a draft, which they will review, edit, and standardize.

Another of the commonly asked questions is whether one can write/review their own letters of recommendation.

It’s not a practice that’s highly encouraged however.

Stanford: “You should not draft, write, translate, or submit your own reference. Stanford University’s application terms explicitly state that the letters of recommendation must be authored solely by your recommenders. Informing your recommenders about this policy is your responsibility to ensure the integrity of your application.”

MIT: “You cannot be involved in any way in the drafting, writing, or submitting of your recommendation letters. Writing a first draft of a letter to give to your recommender is not allowed. However, you may provide a resume or summary of your accomplishments to your recommender to use for contextual information; you may also provide them with a copy of your Statement of Purpose.”


This article has covered the basics of writing letters of recommendation.

We understand that some applicants have profiles that do not necessarily match the example we’ve used here.

So if this example does not cover your profile, you’re welcome to have a chat with us.

Our most read articles

  1. PhD in Computer Science Statement of Purpose
  2. PhD in Biomedical Engineering Statement of Purpose
PhD Statements of Purpose