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Debunking Myths on Recommendation Letters: Are They Really Out of Your Control?

19 JAN 2022

How to ace your recommendation letters: who to choose, how to communicate, and what your recommenders should focus on

There are ninety-nine problems to be worried about when applying for postgraduate programmes, but recommendation letters (RLs) cause a unique type of stress: they seem to be out of your control. While you can somewhat boost your GPA in a semester or spend an extra hour on finessing your writing samples, what your RLs’ writers think about you is, in principle, beyond your reach.

However, that does not mean that you cannot increase the probability of receiving, at the very least, RLs that do not dampen your well-tailored applications (and, of course, at the very best, RLs that are tickets to your dream postgraduate programmes). Drawing on my experience applying to master’s programmes in Europe from Japan, here are some hopefully useful tips.

Writing Blur


Picking Your Deadline(s)

First and foremost, decide when you want all your RLs to be sent in. Deadlines for RLs vary, where some programmes do allow leeway for RLs’ submissions after the application deadline. Nonetheless, it might be best to be on the safe side and use the respective application deadlines as also the RLs’ deadlines, especially as it would mean having fewer important dates on your calendar.

In my case, I took it a step further: I chose the application deadline of the earliest programme as the deadline for everything and had a countdown on my laptop’s main screen (I love my apocalyptic countdowns).


Six Months Before: Who?

Knowing your RLs’ deadline(s), your preparation should start at least six months in advance. Here, the guiding question is: who are your RLs’ writers?

Most master’s programmes require at least two RLs and do not expect more. In some rare cases, for example my top choice when I was applying, three are required. For PhD programmes, the standard is usually three letters. Knowing this, make sure that you have enough writers who would be happy providing your RLs.

You will most likely have one main letter writer secured even before you started thinking about postgraduate studies—in my case, it was my supervisor for my undergraduate thesis. For your other writers, think about teachers of classes where you not only performed well but also particularly liked the class. Trust me: teachers can really tell which students are passionate about their class and even prefer those over the ones that perform extremely well but show little enthusiasm.

It may be late, but also think about whether you can initiate a working relationship with your letter writers at this point. I quickly secured a research assistantship with a professor four months before they submitted an RL for my applications, and that brief period really allowed them to get to know me as a student and researcher better.


3 Months Before: Where and What?

3 months prior to the deadline should be when you officially ask your writers for RLs. Even if it takes some letter writers only a day to write, they might need to move mountains to open that one day up.

The first information you must provide them now is: where? You should already have a finalised list of programmes you are applying to. Furthermore, certain programmes ask letter writers to include specific details in the letters, so knowing where you are applying to will also help with preparing your RLs’ writers for these specific letters. For example, one of the programmes I applied to required my letter writers to explicitly estimate how my academic ability was compared to my cohort, demonstrated in percentile.

Another information that you should provide your writers is what they can include in your RLs. I learned this from one of my letter writers: in your formal request for RLs, you can, and should, remind your writers of your professional relationship with them. While you only have a handful of teachers, they have many students whom they work with. Even if you think you are really close professionally, there is no harm in reminding them about that one class you TA-ed for them or that initiative you took to help other students in your thesis seminar.

However, ensure that you do not come across as demanding those details to be included. I tried to avoid this by affirming that the information is there just in case the letter writers cannot remember what I have worked with them with. Even in the relatively hierarchical environment of Japanese universities, this did not seem to bother any of my writers!

And lastly, give them a “soft” deadline. In my case, I told my writers that the programmes would be asking for the letters in two months. I will explain below why it is a good idea to set a soft deadline for your RLs’ writers a month before the actual deadline you selected at the beginning.


1 Month Before: Officially Confirming Your Writers

I recommend confirming your writers with the programmes you are applying to 1 month before your selected deadline — this is also the mentioned “soft” deadline.

As you are not meant to read your RLs, most (if not all) programmes will ask you for the contact details of your RLs’ writers to liaise with them directly. Furthermore, most universities have automated this process, so the moment you confirm your letter writers in your online application form, they will receive an email guiding them on how to submit.

What I recommend, thus, is to notify your letter writers before you confirm them on your application portals. This is to ensure that they know what are coming, especially as they might have forgot about your approaching deadline(s) because, as is often the case, they have too many students asking for RLs.


Until the Deadline: Checking in, and Checking in Again

If your letter writers have followed the soft deadline for their RLs, then congratulations, you should be done the moment they receive the notifications of submission!

In case they have not followed the soft deadline or simply have not had the time yet to submit the letters (submissions can be quite administratively tiring), do check in with the various application portals and remind your writers if needed. Since I was applying from Japan, I could not directly call the admissions teams of the programmes I applied to; however, the application portals were thankfully up to date with my RLs’ status. Make sure that this is the case with all of your applications as well if you’re applying from a different continent, too.


If you handle this process of finding and communicating with your writers smoothly, that will be the last impression they have of you when writing your RLs. That alone, I believe, significantly improves the chance of you receiving your ideal letters!