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25 Apr

Admissions 101: Letters of Recommendation for Graduate School

Anatomy of a Great Recommendation Letter: The Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How

When you’re applying for a new job, at some point in the process you’ll have to provide your potential new employer with a list of references they can contact to determine if you are as proficient as your work experience indicates.

Your letters of recommendation for graduate school should be no different: Select individuals who can speak to your various academic or professional talents, particularly as they relate to the degree program to which you’re applying.

Just like applying to a new job, you must “sell” yourself in the strongest way possible to give yourself a competitive edge. These letters are meant to establish your proficiency as a professional and your capability to succeed in graduate school and in your career after graduation.

Keep in mind that your university has a vested interest in your success, since you’ll become a vital member of their alumni network upon graduation and maybe even a mentor to future students. So, they’ll want to make sure you have the determination it takes to complete the program and the leadership skills to maximize your success after graduation.

To help you determine your best references, we’ve outlined the who, what, when, where, how, and why of letters of recommendation for graduate school below.

Letters of Recommendation

When should you request your letters?

First of all, before deciding who to ask for a recommendation, you should carefully review the application deadline for your program and create a quick timeline to ensure you provide yourself and your reference enough time to write the strongest letter possible.

It’s usually best to request your letters as soon as possible. That way, if your reference, for whatever reason, is unable or unwilling to submit a recommendation, you will have time to request and receive one from someone else.

If you’re short on time and must request a recommendation letter with only a few days’ notice, you may want to ask someone you know on a more intimate level—someone who you feel comfortable asking for a favor.

For Santa Clara University’s Online Master of Legal Studies (MLS) in Corporate Compliance, students can request their letters of recommendation early in the process and continue submitting additional admissions items without having to wait for your letters to arrive. Don’t let your letters hold up your application!

Who should you ask to be a reference?

To get to the heart of the matter: Who should you ask to write a recommendation letter? Is there a “better” choice to ask to write your letter, or does the quality of the recommendation and how your described traits fit your intended degree matter most?

Sadly, there is no straightforward answer to this frequently asked question. It depends on the institution, program, person, and how familiar they are with your abilities. Ultimately, you need to convince the Admissions Team that you will succeed in the program and, after you graduate, can take what you’ve learned and apply it in innovative ways in your company and community.

If you’re applying to a professional master’s program, then a current manager or former employer can likely attest to your skills as they apply to a particular program. For the Online MLS in Corporate Compliance at Santa Clara University, students are encouraged to submit references who can attest to their proficiency in the workplace. A current or former supervisor’s strong words in your favor can go a long way to improving your chances of admission.

If you can’t think of someone at the management level, consider your current or former colleagues and work associates as potential references. They know your professional capabilities as well as your personality and demeanor as a team member and leader in the workplace.

Don’t worry if you cannot think of professional references right away. Think about your educational background—do you remember any particularly influential instructors from your undergraduate career? Have you stayed in touch with any university faculty members? Do they have connections or ties to the university you’re applying to?

Consider asking someone from your academic past to serve as a reference, as well, since they know your abilities as a student, which speaks to your ability to complete the program successfully.

How to Ask for a Letter of Recommendation

Regardless of who you choose as references, they should be contacted well in advance. Don’t blindside your esteemed colleague, former professor, mentor, or manager with a request before first asking them if they would mind supplying you with a recommendation letter.

Don’t assume they think as highly of you as you do of them, or that they have the availability to do so in short notice. As you determine who will write your letters of recommendation for graduate school, be certain to reach out to each individual first. A simple yet formal email—with proper salutations and signature—is all you need.

Explain that you’re applying to graduate school and need references who can speak to your skills or abilities in the areas most relevant to your degree program, work ethic, or the value you can bring to the university and program overall.

Finally, where should you send them?

Recommenders may be required to mail or email the letters directly to the institution, or there may be an online portal where they can submit a few short-answer questions about your various proficiencies. Double-check the policy wherever you’re applying to avoid lost letters or delays.

Be sure to review the admissions requirements for your university so your letter ends up in the right hands at the right time.

For Santa Clara’s Online MLS in Corporate Compliance, students request letters from their references online and their references submit their feedback online. It’s that easy!

Ready to request your recommendations?

At the end of the day, your recommendation letters should speak volumes in your favor as a prospective student. Take some time to review the tips we provided above to determine the references who will serve your best interests. Consider carefully who you could ask, and then narrow it down based on how they prove your return on investment (ROI) to the university.

Remember: The stronger the letter, the better your enrollment odds, so be sure to select the right source!


Looking for additional tips to polish your graduate school application? Check out our article on how to write a personal essay.

If you’re still considering which programs to apply to, explore the ethics-centric curriculum for the Online MLS in Corporate Compliance, which can help you accelerate your career in a compliance-driven role.