Cornell University

Letters of Recommendation

Letters of recommendation are requested for almost every application to graduate school. If they are not required, it is still helpful to add them. In letters of recommendation, admissions committees look for information not provided elsewhere in the application. A good letter will describe you in ways that are impossible to measure by grades on tests. Letter writers will measure you in comparison to your peers and will distinguish you from other applicants.

Waiving or Retaining Access to Letters of Recommendation

Whom to Ask

Choosing reference people can be difficult, and most graduate schools require two or three letters. Identify a few faculty members, administrators, or employers with whom you have become acquainted through classes, extracurricular activities, or jobs. Recommendation letters from professors are highly valued, especially if you have helped them with research.

Ultimately, the ideal letter writer is someone who can describe you and the work you have done positively and in some detail. The rank or title of the writer is not nearly as important as what he/she says. If a teaching assistant knows you much better than a chaired professor, ask the TA, not the professor. A good person to ask for a reference will meet several of the following criteria:

  • knows your work in the field well and can comment on it in detail
  • has a high opinion of you
  • knows you well in more than one area of your life
  • knows about the particular places to which you are applying as well as the type of study you are pursuing
  • can make a favorable comparison of you with your peers based on having taught or worked with a large number of students
  • is known by the admissions committee and is valued as someone whose judgment should be given weight
  • writes a good letter of recommendation

No one person is likely to satisfy all these criteria, so choose those persons who meet as many of the criteria as possible.