Recommendations and references have a similar role in a selective process. Recommendations are usually formal, confidential letters provided to a graduate school or other academic-based program, while references are used by employers to confirm qualifications before making an offer.

Letters of Recommendation

Letters of recommendation provide a detailed and persuasive argument for why and how the subject of the letter (you) should be admitted to the program you are applying for.

Typically, letters of recommendation are used as part of an application, most often for advanced degree programs but also for selective programs like fellowships, scholarships, or experiential learning. For example, a letter of recommendation is required for applications to the Yawkey Nonprofit Internship Program.

These letters are usually sent directly to the admissions office or selection committee rather than provided to the applicant. Some recommenders also choose to provide a copy to the person they are writing the letter about.

Who to Ask

Ask people who can write about your relevant strengths and who will submit a recommendation on time.

You may need to ask different people, depending on what you are applying for. Some applications may require a personal recommender as well as an academic or professional one.

  • Ask those who know you well: They will be able to write a more comprehensive and detailed letter.
  • Ask those who can write a strong and relevant recommendation: You want a recommender who thinks highly of you—particularly in areas relevant to what you are applying for.
  • Ask those who can submit the letter on time: A glowing letter that arrives late won’t help you.

In order to plan ahead, have an honest conversation with the people you would like to ask for a recommendation well in advance of starting your application.

  • Could they be a strong recommender?
  • If not, what steps can you take to improve or to help them get to know you better?
  • What are the qualities or criteria that they use to determine whether they can provide a strong recommendation?

When to Ask

Ask at least three weeks in advance of the submission date.

Give them plenty of time to make a decision about writing the letter and so that it is as persuasive as possible. Make sure they are aware of the official deadline in addition to your timeline, especially if you would like them to submit the letter early.

How to Ask

Ask in an email.

Wait for an Honest Answer

The person needs time to consider your request. You want all recommendations to be strong ones. If someone you ask feels as though they cannot write a strong recommendation, it is better that they decline, so that you can ask someone else.

Package the Details

You should include all of the necessary details as well as additional helpful information all in one place. This makes it easier for them to reference what they need to know and make a decision. If the topic initially comes up during a meeting or conversation, send a follow-up email as a formal request and so that you can provide all of the details they will need.

The Basics
  • What you are applying for
  • Any requirements in content or format
  • Timeline—your preferred timeline and/or the actual deadline
  • How and/or where to submit the letter
Additional Suggestions
  • Why you chose them as a recommender, either generally or for a specific program
  • A copy of your resume
  • A copy of items that speak to why you are applying, either for the field generally or for a specific program, such as a personal statement or application essay
  • Anything else that helps

Request: Write a Letter of Recommendation

Dear _____________,

I hope you are doing well. I wanted to let you know that I was really inspired after _____________, and it has led me to decide to pursue ___________. I am in the process of applying for ________. My application requires a recommendation letter from a ______ [their role: professor, former or current supervisor, etc.] and since __________ [the reason you are asking this person specifically], I was wondering if you would be willing to write a strong recommendation about me for my application.

If so, the application is due __________, which allows four weeks to complete the letter. I would also be happy to meet with you if you would like to learn more about why I am applying to ____________ and what skills make me a good fit for it. Thank you in advance for your consideration, and I look forward to hearing back regarding your decision.

Your Name

After Asking

It is your job to prompt your recommender to write and submit the letter on time. If needed, send a gentle reminder a week before the deadline and ask if they need more information.

After your recommender submits the letter, be sure to follow up and thank them.

Follow-Up: Deadline Reminder

Dear _____________,

Thank you again for agreeing to write a recommendation letter for my application to ________. I wanted to check in as the deadline is ________, just one week from today.

Please let me know if there’s any additional information that would be helpful to you in writing the letter.

Your Name

Asking for Future Applications

If you think you might need letters of recommendation in the future, it is better to request them while you are still at BU and have good relationships with faculty or others you want to ask. Dossier service platforms like Interfolio will keep the letters confidential until you are ready for them to be submitted to an admissions or selection committee.