Ten Tips for Getting a GREAT Letter of Recommendation

 College-aged student handing over CV and personal statement to a smiling professor in a colorful cartoon office setting, with books, laptop, and certificates in the background.
As with all parts of your application, you need a smart strategy for Letters of Rec

In the competitive world of applications—whether for college, graduate school, or a new job—a strong letter of recommendation can be a deciding factor in your favor. At Gurufi, where we specialize in personal statements, CVs, and letters of recommendation, we have seen firsthand how a well-crafted letter can make a substantial difference. Despite the fact that they play a pivotal role, far too many people simple hand them off to letter-writers and don’t have a thoughtful plan to ensure they get the most of their letters. Here is a 10-part guide to writing a strong letter of recommendation.

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  1. Ask for a STRONG Letter of Recommendation

When I worked as a professor, I would write a letter for anybody who asked… but not everybody got a strong letter. If you earned a B-, my letter would basically say, “Johnny was in my class, completed the assignments on time, and earned a passing grade.” I told people beforehand, “I’ll write you a letter because it’s part of my job, but you haven’t earned a strong one.” By contrast, a great student got a longer, more specific and detailed, and effective letter.

What’s the lesson here? Don’t just ask if somebody will write you a letter; ask if they’ll write you a STRONG letter. They may say “no,” or otherwise, hedge, which indicates that you need to find somebody else. And, if they were going to write you a strong letter beforehand, it helps to set the expectation that you are seeking a letter that highlights your strengths and capabilities in a compelling way.

 

  1. Provide Your Personal Statement and CV

The best letters of recommendation are details, specific, and align with the core themes of your application. As such, to write a strong and detailed letter, your recommender needs to know about your achievements, goals, and experiences. Providing them with your personal statement and CV offers a comprehensive view of your background. Your personal statement will give them insights into your motivations and aspirations, while your CV will highlight your accomplishments and relevant experiences. This information helps them write a letter that is specific and tailored to the opportunity you are seeking.

When I wrote letters, having these documents was quite helpful in terms of making sure that I included details that complemented their application.

  1. Offer to Meet with Them to Discuss Your Application

A face-to-face or virtual meeting can be incredibly valuable. During this meeting, you can discuss the specific points you would like them to mention in the letter. Share your goals, why you’re applying for this particular program or position, and any specific achievements you want to highlight. This conversation can also help you gauge their willingness and enthusiasm for writing the letter, and it provides an opportunity for them to ask questions to better understand how they can support your application.

  1. Be Judicious About Who You Are Asking

Choosing the right person to write your letter of recommendation is crucial. Ideally, your recommender should know you well and be familiar with your work. This is FAR MORE important than simply choosing a big name. They should be someone who has observed your skills, achievements, and character firsthand and can write extensively about them. A letter from a well-known person may carry weight, but only if they truly know you and can provide a detailed and personal account of your abilities. Academic advisors, professors, direct supervisors, or mentors who have worked closely with you are often the best choices.

 

  1. Provide Them with Plenty of Time

Respect your recommender’s time by asking them well in advance of your application deadline. A rushed letter may lack the detail and thoughtfulness of one that was written with ample time. Asking somebody at the last minute might, frankly, also really annoy them, and “annoyed” isn’t the state of mind you want your writer to have. Aim to ask at least a month before the deadline, and be clear about when you need the letter. This allows your recommender to plan their schedule and gives them the time to craft a well-considered letter.

  1. Follow Up Politely and Be Sure to Thank Them Afterward

Once your recommender has submitted the letter, express your gratitude. A hand-written thank-you note is a courteous way to acknowledge their effort and support. Let them know how much you appreciate their help and keep them informed about the outcome of your application. A sincere thank you not only shows your appreciation but also leaves a positive impression for any future requests you may have.

If the deadline is approaching and you haven’t received confirmation that the letter has been submitted, it is appropriate to follow up politely. A gentle reminder can ensure that your application is completed on time without causing undue stress to your recommender.

 

Lastly, if you earn admission or get the job, be sure to forward that information to your letter-writer and thank them for it again.

 

  1. Provide Context and Details

If there are specific experiences or projects you want your recommender to mention, provide them with details. For example, if you worked on a significant project under their supervision, remind them of the specifics and the impact of your work. This helps them include concrete examples that can strengthen your letter.

I always appreciated it when students said, “please emphasize my work on X, Y, or Z…” as it gave me clarity about what to include.

 

  1. Stay Organized

Keep track of who you asked, when you asked, and the deadlines for each letter. This organization ensures you don’t miss any important dates and allows you to follow up as needed without appearing disorganized or forgetful.

 

  1. Offer to Write a Draft

In some cases, your recommender might appreciate a draft letter that they can edit and personalize. This can save them time and ensure that the key points you want to be included are covered. However, this should be offered tactfully and only if you believe it will be helpful.

Letter writing is highly individualized, and different people will ask you for different things. Remember that you’re the one asking for a favor, so do whatever you can -within ethical boundaries- to help them help you.

 

  1. Understand the Format and Requirements

Different institutions may have specific requirements for letters of recommendation. Make sure your recommender is aware of these requirements, whether it’s a particular format, length, or topics that need to be covered. Providing this information upfront can help them write a letter that meets all necessary criteria.

This is especially important if letters have to be uploaded to particular portals. Make sure that you provide clear instructions and perhaps even offer to set it up for them if they haven’t already.

 

Conclusion

Securing a strong letter of recommendation requires careful planning, clear communication, and consideration for your recommender’s time and effort. By following these steps, you can ensure that your letters of recommendation are compelling, detailed, and tailored to support your application. At Gurufi, we’re here to help you through every step of the process, ensuring that your application stands out for all the right reasons. Good luck!

For more help with your personal statement, check us out at Gurufi.com. Our personal statement editors and consultants have decades of experience helping clients get into top Masters and Ph.D. programs in STEM, humanities, fine arts, and social sciences. Our specialty is helping you craft compelling personal statements that move the needle in your admissions process! For questions, shoot us an email at service@gurufi.com. Check us out on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.

To PhD or Not to PhD: Navigating the Decision to Pursue an Academic Career

Cartoon illustration of a potential PhD applicant deep in thought at a cluttered desk, surrounded by books, papers, and academic items. The young adult, with a thoughtful expression, rests their chin on one hand while gazing out a window at a university campus, reflecting on the decision to pursue a career in academia.
Contemplating the Future: A prospective PhD student weighs the possibilities of an academic career, surrounded by the tools of scholarship.

Bucolic afternoon strolls on lovely campuses. Dedicating your life to studying and teaching ideas that you’re passionate about. Tweed jackets, afternoon coffees with smart people, getting paid to read books, and summers off. There are a million things that make academic life attractive and, if you can get it, working as a professor one of the best gigs in the world. I get it. I spent six years at Yale earning my Ph.D., taught at Harvard, and have immense affection for the time I spent in academia. Ultimately, family considerations and a thriving “side hustle” that grew into a prosperous business led me to leave academia behind.

But I still miss is. I’ll never go back… but I miss it.

Given my life and professional trajectory, I’m in a unique position to be frank with people about whether they should get a Ph.D. and pursue life in academia. I don’t think it’s a simple answer; it’s a great life, but also hard to achieve success within. Choosing a career in academia is no small decision. It’s a path fraught with intense study, deep research, and, frankly, a significant amount of uncertainty. For many, the allure of delving deep into a subject they love and contributing to our broader collective knowledge is compelling. However, the reality of academic life often differs from what one might expect. To truly understand if this path is for you, here are ten critical questions to consider before you decide to pursue an academic career.

 

  1. Are You Passionate About the Subject?

Passion is the cornerstone of a successful academic career. I sometimes work with clients who seem to want to go to graduate school because they’re not certain about their next life move, and grad school seems like a fun place to park while you figure it out. This is a mistake. Grad school is intense, and after that you’ll spend years—possibly decades—researching, discussing, and teaching your chosen subject. This requires a deep, sustained interest that goes beyond mere curiosity. Ask yourself: Are you ready to eat, sleep, and breathe this subject? Can you envision yourself being just as excited about your field in ten years as you are today? If the answer isn’t an enthusiastic “yes!” then walk away right now.

 

  1. Are You Ready to Work Really Hard?

Academia demands a high level of dedication and hard work. This includes long hours of research, writing, and teaching, often while juggling several projects at once. The workload can be intense, with tight deadlines and high expectations. Prepare to push your limits of endurance and time management. Are you ready for this level of commitment? PhD programs in STEM subjects have a 50% dropout rate and in the humanities it’s even lower in the humanities and social sciences. If high-achieving people with demonstrated ability and passion in these fields are mostly not completing their PhDs, that should tell you how much is required to excel within academia.

 

  1. Have You Done the Research on What Percentage of PhD Grads Get Tenure-Track Positions?

Let’s assume you beat the odds and complete your Ph.D. The academic job market is notoriously competitive. Only a small percentage of PhD graduates secure tenure-track positions, and many spend years in temporary or adjunct roles. In the year I first went on the job market, I remember a job at Ohio State (a decidedly third-tier university) in my field received over 700 applicants. It has only gotten harder since. Investigate these statistics for your specific field to set realistic expectations about job prospects and the challenges you might face.

 

  1. Have You Thought About the Life You’d Live Pursuing Academia?

Life as an academic can be vastly different from other careers. It often involves relocating to where the jobs are, which might mean moving across the country or even abroad. Financially, it might not be as rewarding as other professions requiring similar levels of education. My first job was at Harvard, and I made about $90,000 per year and had great benefits. But many of my classmates from Yale were adjuncts or tenure-track professors at smaller schools, and they typically earned less than $35,000, had onerous teaching loads, bad benefits, and struggled to complete the kind of research and writing that would enable them to climb the ladder. They simply didn’t have the time.

Most people who pursue PhDs envision themselves one day living in Ann Arbor, Berkely, or Durham, with comfortable -though perhaps not lucrative- jobs that are fulfilling and provide them the time and space to think, research, and write. In fact, you’re far more likely to have to take a first job at Southwest Bumblefuck Tech and Trade School in a rural Louisiana bayou town teaching four sections of 75 students each term and making $37,000 per year. Consider whether this lifestyle—the potential instability, relocation, and financial sacrifices—aligns with your personal goals and family plans.

 

  1. Do You Have a Clear Sense of the Questions You Aspire to Answer?

A strong academic career is often driven by a clear research agenda. What are the big questions in your field that excite you? Are these questions viable for research and discussion over many years? Your ability to define and pursue these questions can significantly impact your success and satisfaction in academia. Saying “I want to study history,” for instance, is barely more useful than saying, “I want to acquire knowledge and information.” It’s helpful if you can articulate what you expect the title of your dissertation to be, not because that is what you’ll certainly write about (insider tip: nobody ends of writing about the thing they expected to when they arrived!) but because if you don’t have a really granular sense of what you aspire to pursue, you may not be ready to do so.

 

  1. Have You Done Anything That Approximates the Kind of Research and Writing You’ll Be Asked to Do in Graduate School?

If you haven’t experienced the rigor of academic research and writing, try to gain exposure before committing to a PhD program. This could involve assisting in research projects, writing papers, or engaging in scholarly discussions. If you’re STEM, lab experience really is necessary, if notyou’re your application, then to ensure that you know what you’re getting into. Such experiences can provide a taste of what your future academic work might entail and help you gauge your readiness and enthusiasm for it.

 

  1. Are You Familiar with the Field and the Big Ideas, Controversies, and Schools of Thought Within It? Do You Have a Sense of Where You Would Position Yourself?

Understanding the landscape of your field is crucial. This includes familiarizing yourself with ongoing debates, key figures, and dominant theories. Where do your interests align within these discussions? Having a well-defined stance can help in carving out your niche in a crowded academic environment.

 

  1. Do You Have the Grades, Test Scores, Letters of Recommendation, and Background to Earn Admission into a TOP Program?

Admission into top-tier PhD programs is highly competitive. These programs often provide better resources, funding, and job placement outcomes. Assess whether your academic record and references are strong enough to make you a viable candidate for these programs.

 

  1. If Not… Are You Willing to Foot the Financial Cost and Face the Steep Uphill Climb of a PhD at a Second-Tier (or Worse) University?

Consider the implications of attending a lower-tier program. When I was applying to PhD programs, my advisor gave me some great advice: you should consider admission without full funding a rejection. As such, if a school didn’t fully fund my doctoral studies, I wouldn’t even consider them. Most top schools fully fund all PhDs as a matter of course, but lower-tier schools offer fewer resources and lower job placement rates, which can affect your career trajectory. Are you prepared for the additional challenges and potential financial burdens this might entail?

 

  1. What’s Your Fallback Plan? Yes, Plan for Success… But Don’t Burn the Ship!

It’s wise to have a plan B. The academic path can be unpredictable, and it’s prudent to consider alternative career paths should your initial plans not pan out. What skills can you develop during your PhD that are transferable to other careers? How will you adapt if the academic market does not favor you?

Bluntly, the path forward for a STEM Ph.D. is much rosier than a humanities or social sciences PhD. If you have a doctorate in Cell Biology, for example, there are hundreds of private companies that would hire you at a good salary. A History or Literature PhD, by contrast, doesn’t do much for you in the non-academic job market.

Conclusion

I don’t want this post to feel too negative, but the truth is that when former students come to me asking about pursuing a PhD, my first task is to try to convince them not to. If they hold their ground and answer my questions, then I am more likely to believe they have the onions for the slog. Deciding to pursue an academic career is a significant commitment and should not be taken lightly. By honestly answering these questions, you can better prepare yourself for the realities of the academic world and make a more informed decision. If you succeed, an academic career can be genuinely wonderful, and I still feel a genuine sense of affection for the students I taught and I still miss the beats of an academic year. Just begin the process disabused of the notion that it’ll be a fun idyllic life, prepare yourself for the high chance of failure, and commit yourself to working your ass off.

For more help with your personal statement, check us out at Gurufi.com. Our personal statement editors and consultants have decades of experience helping clients get into top Masters and Ph.D. programs in STEM, humanities, fine arts, and social sciences. Our specialty is helping you craft compelling personal statements that move the needle in your admissions process! For questions, shoot us an email at service@gurufi.com. Check us out on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.

How to Begin Your MBA Personal Statement

Cartoon illustration of two enthusiastic MBA applicants embarking on their journey, with a white male holding a laptop and giving a thumbs-up, and a South Asian woman holding a folder full of documents, both standing in front of a 'MBA Journey Starts Here!' sign with a university campus in the background
With a careful, smart plan, your MBA application process doesn’t have to be so hard!

It’s April, which means that many of you are beginning in earnest the process of applying for MBA programs. Congratulations on making this potentially life-changing decision!

In this video, we lay out five things to do to prepare yourself for the challenges ahead.

For more help with your personal statement, check us out at Gurufi.com. Our personal statement editors and consultants have decades of experience helping clients get into top MBA programs. Our specialty is helping you craft compelling personal statements that move the needle in your admissions process! For questions, shoot us an email at service@gurufi.com. Check us out on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.