Letters of Recommendation for Graduate School: Who Are the Best Sources?

It is now November, and if you are facing graduate-school applications deadlines anytime between mid-December and early February, it’s time to get serious about arranging for your letters of recommendation. As with the other components of a grad-school application, there are many pitfalls that must be avoided, and my goal with today’s post is to help you avoid some of them. The focus here will be on one key question: Who should be asked to provide a letter of recommendation?

College or university professors who know the student well are nearly always the most appropriate sources for letters of recommendation to support a graduate-school application. If an application requires three letters of recommendation, then it is usually best if all three letters are from professors. There are exceptions in some fields, however, and all applicants should make sure they know what is normal in their field of study. For example, someone applying to a master’s program in counseling psychology or social work should have a letter from someone who has supervised his or her volunteer work in some type of support or helping capacity. Also, some programs have special expectations when it comes to the sources for letters of recommendation, so it’s important to carefully read all instructions. For example, some clinical psychology programs ask for at least one letter from a source like that which I just described, but many do not; if they don’t specify, then all of the letters should come from professors.

The source of a letter (i.e., the “referee”) can influence it’s effectiveness in at least two ways: First, referees are expected to indicate in their letters the capacity in which they have known the student, and they should be able to demonstrate that they know the student well enough, and in an appropriate capacity, that would enable them to evaluate him or her on several relevant dimensions. A professor who taught a student in a junior-level course would be expected to have little insight into his or her true potential, whereas a professor for a senior-level course, who gave the student a very good grade for substantial written work, or for oral presentations, might be a better judge. If the student is in an Honors program with a thesis requirement, the thesis supervisor or the director of the Honors program should be in the best position to provide a comprehensive evaluation

A mistake many people make is to assume they need letters from someone who can testify that they are very smart and capable of very good academic performance. Transcripts and standardized test scores already serve that purpose, and letters of recommendation need to evaluate the applicant on dimensions that are actually more relevant to success in graduate school than a person’s scholarly abilities.

Another factor that can influence the effectiveness of a letter of recommendation is the credibility of the referee, which is related to several different factors. As already mentioned, your referees will probably be asked to indicate how long they have known you. If they have only known you for a few months, some people will assume that they probably don’t know you very well. The referee’s credibility is also related to how much academic experience he or she has; that is, how long this person has been around, and therefore, how much experience he or she has at assessing the potential of students for success in grad school. All else being equal, professors with several years of experience are generally viewed as being more highly referees. Compared to a junior faculty member who has been a professor for only a year or two, senior faculty members will have more experience writing letters of recommendation, and therefore, they may do a better job of it (although there is no guarantee of this).

Be careful not to assume too much about someone’s relevant experience from the amount of gray hair they possess. Age alone is not a reliable a predictor of how much relevant experience a potential referee has at evaluating potential graduate students and writing letters of recommendation.

It’s possible to make reasonable inferences, however, from considering a professor’s academic rank, because this is influenced, at least in part, by how long someone has been employed at a particular institution. Some colleges and universities hire part-time faculty to teach undergraduate courses on a temporary contractual basis; they may, or may not, be given the rank of adjunct professor. Regardless of how experienced (or old) a teacher for one of your introductory-level courses appears, it’s important to keep in mind that your letters for grad school should be written by people who have experience at supervising their own graduate students, and who are, therefore, more likely to know what should be in it. Full-time professors who teach and conduct research are the most likely to have the right types of experience.

Newly-hired, full-time faculty members usually have the rank of assistant professor. After a few years, most are promoted to associate professor; this promotion may be accompanied by granting of tenure. Promotion to (full) professor usually comes after several more years of strong research, teaching, and service. One can assume that an associate professor or full professor has a significant amount of experience at writing letters of recommendation for grad-school applicants.

The academic rank of a referee, while important, is still secondary to what that person has to say about you. Accordingly, the professor who knows you best will usually be your most important referee, even if that person is a junior faculty member or even a part-time instructor. One exception to this is if you are applying to a research-oriented graduate program — university and college teachers who are not active researchers are not be the best referees for evaluating your research potential.

There are obviously many important things to consider when deciding whom to ask for a letter of recommendation, beyond just a potential referee’s credibility. You have to ask people who know the right things about you! Here are some of the dimensions on which you should expect to be evaluated:

ability to work with others
ability to work alone
communication skills (both oral and written)
dedication and persistence
intellectual ability
organizational skills
teaching potential
social skills

Now that you know what kinds of things are discussed in a letter of recommendation for graduate school, do you feel confident that you can get the letters of recommendation you need? Anyone out there have a question about selecting potential referees?


  1. Hello there!

    I am in need of 4 letters (3 for the program, and an extra one for a Fellowship program I’m applying for in conjunction with the program).

    While I have an idea as to who I would like for these letters (2 professors, 1 supervisor and 1 co-worker I’ve collaborated with on many projects), I noticed they only come from two different organizations (school and work).

    I’m not worried because they know me well and have a great professional and personal relationship with them.

    At the same time, however, I’m not sure if I should look into diversifying the organizations of which they came, that can attest to who I am more so in different work/backgrounds.

    Any insight would be appreciated!

    I graduated from University in 2014, and have joined the public sector (education, Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, and more) since then…and wanting to further my studies that I’ve put on hold.

    Thank you!


    1. Randy, I don’t think you should worry about not seeming diverse enough because of the sources of your letters. It’s enough that you have letters for both academic and nonacademic sources. Your experience in the public sector will be noticeable from other parts of your application, such as your personal statement. If you think the 4 letters you have lined up are from people who know you well and can write about more than just your academic abilities, then they will probably be your four best sources.


  2. Greetings! I appreciate the nuggets of wisdom you have provided. So here is my situation in a nutshell. I have received my undergrad degree in economics and philosophy back in 2007 in America. I went to Korea in 2010, and ever since then I have been teaching English at public schools and private institutions. Along the way I received my master’s in international relations degree at a Korean graduate school in 2014. I am planning to apply for PhD programs in Korea, Australia, the UK, and a few in Europe. All the schools require 2 recommendation letters. My thesis supervisor (full-professor), with whom I had published 5 peer-reviewed articles with, will be writing a strong recommendation letter for me. However, after reaching out to other professors from my master’s program, I am afraid I won’t be receiving any reference letters from those professors since I never got any response from them. Would my 2nd recommendation letter coming from my work place be suitable for a political science/international relations PhD admissions? This person was the senior teacher at my old work place (private language institute for kids) who hired and trained me as a teacher there, and also after she moved to another job as an education consultant she has hired me as the US college admissions essay editor for Korean high school students who will be applying to US universities (I have been doing this for 3 years at a seasonal basis, and I edit essays as well as help create content and strategy).


    1. William, thanks for the question, and please accept my apologies for taking so long to reply. It’s hard to know how effective the letter from your workplace will be, but it is probably your best option. And it might turn out to have a strong positive impact. I would not hesitate to use that source for one of your letters. – Dave Mumby


  3. I am having trouble choosing my referees, I hope I get a reply from you because it would be so helpful. I am applying for masters program (research thesis) but I have no professors as my referee. The referees I have are lecturers, one with PhD and the others presently in pursuit of their PhD programs, they all taught me and know me personally. One of them supervised me during my undergraduate final year thesis which was also research based. My question now is, are they good enough as referees for me or do I reach out to professors who never knew me personally?


    1. Those current PhD students who know you must have a graduate supervisor, right? That would be the professor whose lab they belong to. That professor, or professors, should be the ones you ask for letters. They might not know you very well, but they might be willing to help you out and if they care to make the letter truly effective, they will ask the PhD student(s) for input. But if the letter is signed by a PhD student, it won’t be taken seriously, and it will look bad that you don’t have letters from professors who know you reasonably well.


  4. Hi there! I was hoping you could answer a question I have that’s been making me a bit anxious. Currently I am teaching aboard in Korea and I’m looking into applying to graduate school when I’m finished. I would like to receive a Masters in International Education (my undergrad is in Secondary Education with a focus in English Literature and ESL). However, I’ve been out of school for about 3 years now (I’ve been teaching in Japan during that time) and probably won’t apply for another year or so. I wasn’t too close to any of my professors and I went to a large school (PSU) so I don’t think any of them really remember me. My question is, do letters of rec HAVE to be from professors or can they be from employers that are relevant to my area of study?


  5. Hope, you are still available on this post for advice.

    I am an undergrad student and applying for master’s program. I have letter of recommendation from the HoD of my department who has taught me 2 courses pre-final year, one from the associate professor. For the 3rd letter , I would like to ask if it is a good choice to get it from a guest faculty in the department. Though a guest faculty, she has taught me courses in almost all the semesters, has taken practical sessions and knows me well to comment on my academic performance.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, I’m still answering questions, at least when I have an answer. Your question is a good one.
      The guest faculty member would indeed be a good choice for your third letter if she knows you as well as the others. What’s most important is how much of your relevant abilities and character attributes the person has been in a position to observe, and how easy it will be for them to provide anecdotal evidence to back up their positive testimonials. Keep in mind that a truly effective letter of recommendation will need to mention more than just your academic abilities, because success in graduate school will require more than just strong academic abilities. Your transcripts probably indicate what needs to be known about your academic abilities. The letters of recommendation need to address other things about your preparedness and potential for success in graduate studies and research, Any professor who has been in a position to see you display these other qualities will be a good choice for a letter of recommendation (provided they are actually good at writing effective letters). – Dave Mumby


  6. While this post is a few years old, I see you’re still replying to comments, so I have a question. I want to apply for a Masters in TESOL. My bachelor’s is in English and Philosophy, though, so I suppose the only relevant professors who would be close to education, especially teaching English, would be my English professors. Problem is, I was never really close with my English professors, and was always much closer to my Philosophy ones, and my astrophysics professor is probably the one who saw me struggle and overcome the most adversity during my undergrad degree (since I wasn’t a science student, and I was taking a second year science course). Would it be beneficial to just ask the professors I don’t know at all, or should I ask the ones I do know well, and who know me well, even if they weren’t teaching in the field I’m going into?

    Thanks for this, by the way! It helps a lot, and relieves a lot of anxiety about grad school.


    1. Thank-you for the great question, Emily. Your best options here would be those professors who know you. It really doesn’t matter very much at all that they are not English professors. In order for their letters to be effective, what the professors writing letters of recommendation need to emphasize are those qualities you possess, and which are relevant to your likelihood of succeeding in the Masters in TESOL program. The essential behavioral and character attributes are not specific to any discipline, so a Philosophy professor that knows you well should be able to attest to the same things about you as would an English professor who knows you equally well and in similar ways. The Philosophy professors’ observations and opinions about you will have the same credibility, and influence on the reader, as they would if they were those of an English professor. – Dave Mumby


  7. This post was old but I hope you answer. I am applying to grad school and already have 2 professors in my field writing letters for me. I was a D1 athlete and captain would a coaches letter be beneficial? Since coaches know you better then professors the majority of the time.


    1. You want your letters to emphasize your character attributes, relevant to the likelihood that you’ll succeed in grad-school, and a coach may have the clearest insight and much anecdotal evidence of such things as: your drive and motivation, determination and perseverance following setbacks, reliability, discipline and organization, and so on… If the coach knows how to write an effective letter and is willing to put in the effort to do this for you, then it probably won’t be a bad choice for your third letter. – Dave Mumby


  8. Hope you still answer, I see the post is a few years old. I have a situation where I’ve only been back in normal full time school and year ago. I will be looking to get letters around May. I was in the military for six years. I accumulated much of my credits through online during deployments. So, my pool of professors who know me enough to write letters is thin. I however have three medals and should not have much of a problem getting commanders to write letter though the best degrees amongst those I served is a master’s. My graduate friends are implying these would not be good. I’m just curious about your thoughts or suggestions?


    1. I agree to some extent with what your friends are suggesting. Letters from your former commanders are unlikely to be as effective as letters from professors who have had the chance to get to know how you operate academically or in a research context. But while this is generally true, it doesn’t mean the letters would be altogether bad, and there might be circumstances where one has no better options. In your case, you still have a few months to try setting up a more effective letter of recommendation from an academic source. It is still early in the winter semester, so not too late to find some type of opportunity that will give one or more of your professors a chance to see you in action outside the classroom setting. You may still end up having to use at least one letter from a former military commander, but that won’t necessarily be a huge deficiency if that letter is a strong one. It will be clear from other parts of your application that you did most of your undergraduate degree online, and most people looking at your letters will understand why this would make it difficult for you to have multiple letters from professors who know you well. You should really do what you can over these next few months to make sure at least one professor gets acquainted with some of your relevant skills and character attributes. – Dave Mumby


  9. What if you have been out of college for 10 years and are trying to go back to grad school with a career change? Im certain none of my professors would remember me.


    1. Great question, Jackie. It is not helpful (or easy) to get a letter from a professor who only knew you 10 or more years ago. But, if a professor knew you in a relevant capacity within the past five years, it’s worth asking for a letter. Don’t worry too much if you have to get your letters from recent or current employers. The people who evaluate your application will understand why your letters of recommendation aren’t the same as those for a graduating senior, and it will probably not be held against you. In fact, life-experience and maturity are positive qualities that some professors actually look for in potential grad students. You will be able to explain in your personal statement why your letters are not from academic sources.


  10. I´m thinking on applying to a PhD. But it has been six years since I graduate. I have 2 undergrad diplomas (one from a Mexican University and the other from TSE in France), and a MSc from a university in UK. Also, I have several years of work experience.

    I was wondering which are my best options for the letters of recommendation? Should I sent one from each diploma? Should I include one from my boss?



    1. The more recently the person has interacted with you in a meaningful way, the better. If an applicant doesn’t have a letter from someone who supervised her work in the most recent past, it can raise questions about why this letter is missing. Is it because the student doesn’t think the person who supervised her most recently would provide a good recommendation? Also, a letter from someone who knew you more recently is more likely to be replete with details or anecdotal evidence of your strengths. So, if you have enough good sources for letters from the most recent diploma and your recent work experience, that would be a better way to go than to try to contact some professor who knew you several years ago. – Dave Mumby


  11. As an undergraduate, I was not sure if graduate school was the next step for me. However, now that I have been in the working world for 9 months or so after graduation, I have realized that I definitely would like to pursue graduate school as my next life step. I am concerned about the letters of recommendation that I will need to obtain to apply for each of the schools I would like to attend. Unfortunately, I did not have the foresight to forge enough relationships with my professors to warrant enough high quality letters of recommendation. I have one professor who will undoubtedly give me a wonderful letter, that I am sure of. I do have multiple professional references from my years spent working in related fields, so I figure they would be the next people in line to ask for recommendation letters. I did not see anything on the website about what to do in this type of situation, so I was hoping for some additional advice on this topic.


    1. If you are thinking of applying in the next cycle, then your best strategy would be to go with the letters you already have in line. Does the professor you think could give you a wonderful letter know the right things about you — that is, your ability to do research, written and oral communication skills, and the other things that matter? Have they known you in a context that would give their opinion some credibility? If you answer Yes to these questions, then use that letter, and back it up with the professional references that are most likely to give a credible assessment of your interpersonal skills, reliability, work-ethic, and relevant things like that. If the answer is No to the questions about the professor who knows you, then in order to have a decent shot at a good graduate program, you may first need to make a serious commitment of time and energy to make up for those things you missed out on while you were an undergrad. I have known many students who have been in the same boat as you, and who succeeded after taking a year to get the kinds of experience they needed. The extra time helped some of them find grad programs that were even better suited to their career plans than the ones they were originally considering. Unfortunately, there aren’t any shortcuts I would recommend… not even this one.

      – Dave


  12. Assistant professors could write very good letters however, but I would say that if the other two letter writers are full or associate professors, having one assistant professor with a very good letter may help instead of harm. Just my two cents.


    1. I agree. A letter from an assistant professor might be an asset if one has two other letters from full or associate professors. Senior and junior faculty members can see things differently, or notice different things about a student. If an applicant has a letter from a younger, less-experienced prof., and it corresponds strongly with statements make in two strong letters from more senior profs., that could be viewed by some as evidence of the applicant’s consistency, and breadth of appeal.


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