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How to Communicate with Your Recommenders

    1. How do I ask for a recommendation?
    2. How far in advance should I ask for recommendations?
    3. How many letters of recommendation will I need?
    4. How should I prepare my recommenders?
    5. How should I check in with my recommenders?
    6. How should I thank my recommenders?
    7. What if my recommender goes dark?
    8. What if my recommender asks me to write their rec?
    9. What if my recommender is a bad writer?
    10. What if my recommender misses their deadline?


So, you’ve selected your recommenders. Congratulations! If you followed our advice in Selecting Your Recommenders you’ve taken a big step towards securing the stellar recommendations you need. But there are still many tasks ahead of you in the recommendation process, the first one being the delicate task of asking your recommenders if they’ll do it. When you are solidly focused on your own application goals and desires, you may forget that your recommenders also have busy lives of their own. Start off strong by asking recommenders for their help the right way.

How do I ask for a recommendation?

Do your best to ask each recommender in-person and one-on-one whether they’re willing to write for you. This strategy has several advantages. First, it creates a more meaningful and personal connection between you and your recommender. Second, asking in person means you can read their tone and body language far better than you could over the phone, by email, or via text. This interaction will give you an indication of how excited, nervous, or reluctant your recommender might be about writing this rec for you.

In addition to asking your recommenders in a personal way, you should word your request strategically. Don’t ask if they are willing to write you a recommendation. Ask them: “Can you write me an exceptional recommendation?” This phrasing shifts your potential recommender’s focus from their ability to decline to their desire and ability to help.

Additionally, it uses a stronger adjective. After all, you don’t want a recommender who will write you a good recommendation, you want someone who will write you a great one! Play around with your choice of adjective until you find one that feels comfortable to you; fantastic, extraordinary, noteworthy, and remarkable are all good examples.

If you’ve chosen the right recommenders, they should be both willing and able to help you. Once you’ve earned the “Yes” you need from a recommender, thank them on the spot and communicate your next steps.

How far in advance should I ask for recommendations?

Many problems you will encounter while gathering recommendations can be combated with one simple step: Give your recommenders 90 days. While this may seem like an enormous lead time, it’s the right amount. Here’s why: before your recommenders even start writing, there is a laundry list of things you have to do. You will need to brief them on your personal brand, relay any materials you want them to use (resume, transcript, etc.), give them the necessary link, login, or written prompts they’ll need, and communicate all due dates.

Once your prep work is complete, each recommender will need time to write one or more letters of recommendation, edit them, and submit them… on top of their regular work schedule. Remember that your recommenders are doing you a big favor, and you don’t want them to feel stressed! Making the letter submission process as efficient and seamless as possible for your recommenders will improve your applications significantly.

Your goal should be to have all of your recommendations submitted two weeks before the application deadline for each school. In addition to giving your recommenders 90 days, you can increase the likelihood of on-time submissions with these tips:

  • Set a premature deadline: For most, 90 days between the recommendation request and the due date is enough. However, if you have a recommender that you know is particularly busy (or forgetful), you should feel comfortable giving them a fictitious deadline in advance of the real due date to ensure everything is submitted on time. If your lagging recommender misses this false deadline, it’s time to turn to an alternate recommender.  
  • Organize multiple deadlines: If a recommender is writing you multiple letters of recommendation (as is often the case), you should give them an easy way to keep track of their many deadlines (e.g., a calendar invite, a written chronological list of each school and its deadline). This will help your recommender prioritize each school and submit on time.

How many letters of recommendation will I need?

Since most graduate schools require one to three recommendations and most grad school hopefuls apply to between five and eight schools, it’s possible you’ll need anywhere from five to a whopping twenty-four recommendations. As dramatic as this sounds, a candidate who needs twenty-four recs (basically the worst case scenario) will need just four solid recommenders as a bare minimum, keeping in mind that no recommender should be asked to write more than six recommendations.

At the other end of the spectrum, where you need just five recs and could choose a single recommender for each, you may still choose to petition a smaller number of recommenders and have each of them write multiple recs. In this case, and with more moderate recommendation loads of ten to fifteen recommendations, you should distribute your recommendation assignments based on who knows you best. Assign the most recs to the recommenders who will do the best job, but remember that the more recs you ask for, the longer your recommender will need to write them.

Your recommendation heroes who are writing four, five, or even six recs for you will need to be notified farther in advance than other recommenders, and they should be thanked even more ardently.

How should I prepare my recommenders?

Every successful project begins with setting the right expectations, and your graduate school recommendations are no different. These are the fundamental questions your recommender should be able to answer once you’ve set expectations:

  • How many letters of recommendation they’re writing
  • Which schools the recs are for
  • What the specific prompt or question is for each rec and how they will access them
  • How and when they should submit each rec
Once these expectations are set (and your recommenders are still on board) you should schedule a time to brief them. Briefing your recommender over coffee or lunch is a great way to keep the process personal, but if either of you are too busy, you can always send an email. Once you’ve thanked your recommender for their time, use this meeting or email as a chance to:
  • Tell your brand story. State up front what your brand is; your recommender needs to know. Indicate the key character traits you’re trying to get across in your application and ask them to provide specific examples of them (feel free to remind them of experiences and achievements that fit the bill). 
  • Add context. Tell your recommender why you’re going to graduate school and what you plan to do with the degree. Detail what you believe each school is looking for, how you meet those requirements, and the stories your recommender can highlight to prove it. Lastly, give them your resume, transcript, and a list of your top skills to fill in the details.
It’s important to note that this preparation is about giving your recommenders talking points, not an outline. It’s okay to tell your recommender what needs to be said, but you can’t tell them how to say it or say it for them. Moreover, while all the information you give a recommender can be used in your recommendations, it doesn’t have to be. In fact, if you give your recommenders greater freedom in writing your recs, they may reveal hidden gems in your character that would otherwise have gone unnoticed.

How should I check in with my recommenders?

So you’ve got your final list of recommenders and they’re all prepped. Time to sit back and let those recommendations roll in… 
Well, not so much. A laissez-faire approach to recommendation management may give you more time to write your essays and fill out your short answer questions, but it won’t result in great recommendations. For the best recs (and the fewest last-minute scares), you should check in with your recommenders once a month. So the next question to tackle is: How can you go about reminding your recommenders of their commitment without nagging?
Treat each recommender like a partner in this exciting journey you’re on! Let them know how your application is going, how excited you are about the schools you're applying to, and what steps you’ve taken since you last spoke. More often than not, your recommender will appreciate this enthusiasm and match it in their writing. Making your recommenders feel involved and connected, rather than managed, is key for ensuring that your recs are submitted on time and in superb form.
In addition to your monthly check-ins, here are some things you can do to manage recommendation timing:
  • Check the status of each recommendation submission online. A concrete sense of progress may give you peace of mind.
  • Set all recommender deadlines two weeks early, rather than just the ones for your busiest recommenders.
  • Send one email to your recommender each week, starting four weeks out from the given deadline.
  • Send one text and make one phone call to your recommender each week, starting two weeks out from the given deadline.

How should I thank my recommenders?

As you may have already noticed, frequent thank-you’s are a natural part of the recommendation process. You should thank your recommender when they agree to write you a rec, when you sit down or email to brief them, right after you submit your application, and when you receive your interview offer (which you’ll definitely be getting now that they’ve written you an amazing recommendation).
Once you get accepted, send each of your recommenders a formal thank you card (not a text, voicemail, or email) letting them know that you got in! Including a small gift along with this thank you card will make recommenders grateful they participated in the process and make them more likely to help you again in the future (employment opportunities, anyone?). A sincere message of thanks and some token of your appreciation, like a bottle of wine, a specialty coffee, or a dinner out is a great way to celebrate your mutual success.

What could go wrong?

If you follow the steps we’ve outlined, your recommendation process should be simple, well-organized, and successful. However, there are some sticky situations you might encounter even if you execute every step perfectly.

What if my recommender goes dark?

Since there’s nothing you can do to make your recommenders submit, there is a point at which you may need to give up and choose an alternate recommender. An alternate recommender can reasonably be recruited from two pools:

  1. Your existing recommenders.  If any of the recommenders who are already writing recs for you have a recommendation load of less than six, you may be able to ask them for one additional rec.
  2. The last round of cuts you made to your initial recommender list These recommenders should still be reasonably qualified to write you a great recommendation.

When dealing with a recommender who’s gone dark, it is often more efficient to “double-down” than it is to start fresh. Give that sluggish recommender one last push or ask an existing recommender for one more letter of recommendation before contacting a recommender who didn’t make your original list.

Keep this in mind as you consider the following three recommender cases:

  1. Your recommender said “Yes” to writing a recommendation, but when you sent more details or asked to set up a meeting, they never responded.
  2. Your recommender responded to your follow up emails originally, but slowly stopped answering as the deadline approached.
  3. Your recommender is still responding to your emails, but hasn’t submitted yet.

As you approach the two-weeks-away mark for your given deadline, consider which of these cases applies to your recommender. If you never got a second response from them, as in the first case, you need to choose an alternate, and fast, so they have enough time to write their own recommendation.

If your recommender falls into the second category, it’s likely that they will produce a recommendation in the end. Their radio silence is more likely due to busyness (or the embarrassment of procrastination), so don’t worry too much. Do, however, send an email asking them to confirm their continued intention to write the rec, without pressuring them too much on time.

If your recommender falls into the last category, you can almost certainly rely on them to produce the recommendation they promised; in the meantime, do your best to relax.


What if my recommender asks me to write their rec?

Your response to this question should be no. Period. We strongly discourage you from attempting to write your own recommendation under someone else’s name for several reasons. First, it is fundamentally dishonest and unethical. A wrong move like this can irreparably damage an otherwise perfect application. And second, the admissions representatives that are reading your recommendations are the same ones that will be reading your essays and short answers… if they find similarities there, it won’t look like a coincidence.

Although you must stay strong in refusing to write the letter of recommendation for your recommender, there are ways to combat this challenge that are more tactful than accusing your recommender of being unscrupulous (which we do not recommend). First, outline your response in a way that makes the right choice sound obligatory rather than optional. Mention the school’s strict plagiarism policy or a specific notice you received (or didn’t, in reality) warning you against exactly this behavior. Next, empathize with your would-be recommender, expressing that you understand their busy schedule and will do your best to make the process as easy as possible for them. Then, follow through! List the specific steps you can take to simplify the process for them (e.g., write a thorough list of talking points, offer to answer any questions, meet in-person to discuss the rec, etc.).

What if my recommender is a bad writer?

This question has two different answers, depending on what exactly you mean by bad writer. If your recommender is unable to convey your brand in a compelling manner (by their own estimation, as you should never view your own recommendations ) it’s possible you’ve chosen the wrong recommender. If your recommender doesn’t have specific and vivid examples of your character traits on hand, they shouldn’t be on your list.
On the flip side, your recommender may be an enthusiastic advocate who cites perfectly suited anecdotes… with poor grammar and spelling. If the first is true, it’s time to move on to an alternate recommender. But if the second is true, you have several options.
If your recommender is having trouble writing their rec due to a language barrier or poor writing skills, as in the second case, you should gently direct them to a helpful resource. This might be an online guide, a knowledgeable colleague, or even a coach. It is not unheard of for applicants to hire a writing expert or translator for their recommender in such cases.

What if my recommender misses their deadline?

If you’ve given your recommenders the suggested 90 days, checked in monthly, and followed up with more emails and phone calls, all of your recommendations should be submitted on time. But if you experience unforeseen circumstances (e.g., a recommender or a member of their family is severely ill or injured) it’s possible that you could still be missing a recommendation less than two weeks before the given deadline. At this point, you should be calling up your alternate recommenders. “But what if they’re all sick too?” you ask. “What a stunningly, impossibly unlucky set of people,” we respond…
If none of your alternates respond by a week out from the real deadline, you can reach out to the school and communicate your difficulties. While there will usually be a grace period for recommendation submissions, schools will look much more favorably upon those who alert the school to their problem in advance. If the deadline has already passed, it’s too late.



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