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Application Q&A: Letters of Recommendation for Grad School

20 Nov
Piece of paper with letters of recommendation printed at top of page

Nearly all graduate schools and programs you might apply to have at least one thing in common: They will want to hear about you from those who know you best. Requesting letters of recommendation for graduate school is a rite of passage for nearly everyone who is interested in pursuing an advanced degree, and they can be one of the most powerful assets among your application materials.

Below, we’ve collected some of the key questions grad school applicants have as they set about requesting recommendation letters, and we’ve provided answers that we hope you’ll find thoughtful and helpful as you work on your application for the Online Master of Education (M.Ed.) in Counseling program at William & Mary or wherever else your educational journey may take you.

When should you request letters of recommendation?

It may seem obvious, but it’s worth stating: Your first step when beginning the process of requesting letters of recommendation for graduate school is to review the upcoming application deadlines for your program of choice. Selecting a target date early in the process will allow you to plan out an effective timeline, which can benefit both you and your letter writers.

Along these lines, you should select your letter writers and ask them to write on your behalf as early as possible. This will give you time to find backup options if any of your chosen recommenders are unable to commit to the task. Asking them too close to the application deadline can result in rushed letters that do not best represent you. Worse, it could create the impression that you do not value your recommenders’ time, which could be damaging to otherwise strong personal and professional relationships. William & Mary’s Online M.Ed. in Counseling program helpfully makes this process a bit easier by accepting recommendation letters and other supplemental materials after the application deadline passes; the only item that must be submitted by the deadline for this program is the online application itself. So don’t hesitate to submit your application, even if you think your recommenders might need a bit more time to produce their best work.

Who should write your recommendation letters?

While there may be no hard and fast rules as to who the most effective grad school recommendation writers are, there are some thoughtful ways in which you can approach the selection process.

First, see if your desired graduate program offers any guidelines as to what types of people they have in mind as strong recommenders. Programs at different universities and in different disciplines may have their own specific idea of who is best suited to offer a compelling recommendation.

If you are applying to an MBA program, for instance, the admissions committee may wish to hear from a manager or colleague who can attest to your acumen within a professional environment. Or, if you are applying to a program that prefers to emphasize its scholarly rigor, you may be encouraged to seek out academic references first and foremost. This is the case for William & Mary’s Online M.Ed. in Counseling, which asks for three letters of recommendation among its application requirements with an emphasis on people who are familiar with your achievement in an academic setting.

Whatever the case, be sure to seek out recommenders with whom you have a strong, positive relationship and a real connection. And if you can find ones who have a personal or professional connection to your institution of choice, that is even better.

How do you ask someone to write on your behalf?

As with most parts of the application process, it pays to start as early as possible. Try to broach the topic of recommendation letters while you are still in the exploratory portion of your application process. Before you even have a specific program or university in mind, get in touch with your professor, advisor, manager, mentor or whoever it may be and mention to them that you are considering graduate school. Asking them at this point if they would be willing to help you out rather than bombarding them with a rapidly approaching deadline is far more likely to yield positive results.

If your recommender is someone who you see every day, it is perfectly fine to bring this process up in casual conversation. And if you are approaching someone who you have not spoken to in some time, such as a professor whose class you loved in college years ago, a simple, pleasant yet formal email should do the trick.

Particularly if your chosen recommender comes from an academic background, they will likely understand the importance of this task and the compliment that is implicit in being asked to write a letter on your behalf. If your experience with this person was positive and your relationship with them strong, they will consider it a privilege to help you on your educational and career journey.

Where should you send your letters of recommendation?

The last of our recommendation letter questions is also the one with the most straightforward answer, albeit one that will differ from institution to institution. Some programs will prefer that letters be sent via email or snail mail directly from your recommenders to the university itself, while others will ask that they be uploaded through a form that is part of the online application system.

The latter of these two options is the case at William & Mary, where applicants provide background and contact information for their letter writers as part of the online application, and the system emails the recommenders directly with instructions for how to submit their letters. Be sure you’ve alerted your recommenders that this email will be coming before you submit their information to the application system; you don’t want them being caught by surprise.

At William & Mary, as at the vast majority of graduate programs, applicants will be asked as part of this process to indicate whether they waive their right to view their letters of recommendation. Your agreement to these terms is important for establishing the credibility of your recommendations to the admissions committee.

Transform Your Career and Yourself at William & Mary

The Online M.Ed. in Counseling program at William & Mary is intellectually challenging and rewarding. It shapes students into social-justice-minded practitioners and prepares them to be effective licensed counselors in clinical mental health, military and veterans, and school counseling settings. With strong recommendation letters in hand from your valued advisors and mentors, you will be well on your way to taking this major step in your counseling career.