Advice on Recommendation Letters

From Mackenzie Grubb, GBMES Recruitment Co-chair and Ph.D. student, Department of Biomedical Engineering, University of Virginia

Who should I ask?
Thinking about who to ask for a letter of recommendation can absolutely be a daunting task, yet the strongest letter writers are usually the ones that know you the best. My advice is to seek out professors, mentors and research advisors who can speak to your strengths in a genuine way. This doesn’t mean, however, that you can’t or shouldn’t supplement their knowledge of you with additional information about your passions and accomplishments. If they are open to it, setting up a meeting with them to talk explicitly about your goals and motivations can be helpful! Even if they are not available for a meeting, it is always helpful to provide a letter writer a list of talking points to help guide them in what to focus on.

There is no explicit rubric for who to ask, though a few general principles are helpful to consider. You should absolutely have someone that can speak about your research potential with strength and detail, since this is of primary importance in succeeding in your graduate career. If you’ve worked in multiple research labs, feel free to ask multiple advisors to write about your time in their lab. Just be sure to prioritize a letter from your longest and most meaningful research contribution. Outside of research, you can seek out letter writers that demonstrate who you are holistically. Think about what strengths you would bring to a Ph.D. program and reflect on the letter writers that have witnessed those strengths in action. These letters are a great opportunity to highlight distinct and complementary aspects of your application, but with a proviso: there's a risk that mentors outside of academia may not know how to speak to the things that graduate programs are looking for. Thus, be sure that these letter writers will remain focused on the qualities that the admissions committee is most interested in.

When should I ask?
It is in everyone’s best interest to ask as early as possible! The Fall semester is a busy time for everyone (especially faculty) and allowing ample time for preparation will always set you up for a more positive outcome. Thus, as soon as you have your letter writers in mind, go ahead and reach out! Three weeks in advance of the deadline is really the latest I would suggest asking. Once you’ve asked, don’t be shy to follow up periodically to ensure that your letter isn’t forgotten! Our program accepts letters through Interfolio, which is really helpful for faculty that will be submitting letters to multiple graduate programs for you. But since the admissions committee cannot go forward with your application until all letters have been submitted, making sure this process happens early will help ensure your application won’t be overlooked.

I hope this advice clears up any questions and hesitations around this aspect of graduate applications. Seeking out recommendation letters can be scary and uncomfortable, especially if it’s the first time you've done it. Starting early leaves lots of room for flexibility, spares you from panic and leads to you being able to showcase yourself in the best way possible. I hope this process leaves you encouraged, knowing there are many faculty who are rooting for your success! You’ve got this!