Requesting Letters of Recommendation

What Admissions Committees Look for in a Recommendation Letter

After the writing sample, one of the most important parts of an application to a doctoral program is your recommendation letters. Together, these letters help to paint a picture of the kind of student you have been and the kind of student and colleague you are likely to be in the future. The purpose of this page is to offer more detail about letters of reference.

The general guidelines: you should prepare for at least three letters of recommendation, and

  • Ask for your letters well in advance of your deadlines
  • Send your recommenders any additional application materials that might help them write a strong letter for you.
  • Make sure you let your recommenders know specific things that you’d like them to speak about in their letters (e.g., your research or your teaching abilities)

Because these letters are so important, you’ll need to consider carefully whom to ask to write a letter for you. In most cases, these will be from professors in whose classes you’ve done well, or with whom you have a particular connection (e.g., you did an independent study with them, or they’ve mentored you). But it’s not necessarily the case that any professor will do. As you think about whom to ask to write a reference letter, consider the points below.

  • Rank and connection to the university: It’s impossible to know what a particular admissions committee looks for in terms of seniority, tenure status, etc. However, a general guideline is that you’d ideally like at least one person with a long and deep familiarity with higher education, admissions processes, and the general profile of graduate students applying to PhDs. This experience can often give a recommender a particularly broad perspective that committees appreciate.
  • Area of specialization: This is one of the most important aspects of selecting recommenders. A committee will want to know whether someone with extensive research and publications in the student’s interest area judges their potential to be excellent. So, a less-senior faculty member in your area of interest may be a far better recommender than someone who works in a different area but has been around longer.
  • Setting aside the important issues of interest areas and personal characteristics, talents, or skill sets outside of the discipline, what admissions committees are usually looking for in a candidate is someone who already has a significant understanding of the literature in which they intend to specialize; has a general understanding of professional norms in the field; has been very successful in coursework (where “successful” means A-level work); has original, important ideas and perspectives; and is ready or close to being ready to write articles suitable for publication. So, the strongest reference letter would give evidence for each of those claims, and you should choose references who can write strongly in these areas.
  • Finally, in particular cases you may want to ask an unusual recommender candidate to write you a letter addressing a particular skill. For example, if you are expert in an instrument, a language, a form of community engagement, etc., that person can make the case for you that this is a serious area of commitment in which you are already prepared to do work – not just something you’re using to puff up your application.