Recognizing the Right Recommenders: 5 Tips for Great Grad School Recommendations

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Manhattan Prep GRE Blog - Recognizing the Right Recommenders by Laurie Martin of Stratus PrepDid you know that you can attend the first session of any of our online or in-person GRE courses absolutely free? We’re not kidding! Check out our upcoming courses here.


Grad School applications have risen in record numbers in the past few years.  A higher education study conducted from 2004-2014 showed a rise in enrollment by over 150,000 students. Last year, over 2 million people applied to grad school in the US. 

There is no wonder why. Applying to grad school brings excellent opportunity for professional and personal advancement. However, in this competitive climate—differentiation is key. One important way to stand out is through fantastic teacher recommendations. Below are five tips to getting them into your application.

  1. Get Good Grades – Of course, you need to get the best possible undergraduate GPA in order to apply to grad school. However, you also need to focus even more on getting a high grade in the coursework or subject area that you want to study in grad school. Moreover, when you are seeking recommendations, make sure to do it from professors who have seen your demonstrated academic achievement.
  1. Invest Your Time – Go to office hours. Set meetings and coffee discussions. Stay after class to ask questions. Of course, none of this is a substitute for attending and participating in class. The more connected you are with a professor and their course material, the better they are able to advocate for your specific academic abilities.
  1. Ask for Help In Class– Don’t worry if you initial have a hard time in a key undergrad course. Some of the best recommendations letters were written by profs who worked with a struggling student to improve and soon master an area. These trajectories are just as, if not sometimes more compelling, than a letter that is all raves. However, you must ask for help and do extra work needed to improve.
  1. Ask for Help Outside of Class –Ask for their advice. They’ve already done what you want to do. Make your grad school plans known to them early. Ask them about their own grad school experiences. Invite them to guide you or ask for any suggestions to follow based on their academic path. The more effort they invest and the more interest they have in your process, the better, more thoughtful recommendation you are likely to receive.
  1. Support Your Supporter – Request your academic recommendations formally and early in the semester; give them plenty of time to write. Let your professors know when all application deadlines are and what date you would need the recommendation submitted IF they agreed to write on your behalf.

Provide context for them. Tell them when you took their course, why you enjoyed it, your grades in their course, and why you are applying to graduate school—even if you think they already know.

Ask them in-person if possible and then follow up with an email, or asking over email is fine if you are no longer near campus. Remember to tell them for what purpose you ultimately hope to use the degree.

Once they agree to write for you, send them a second comprehensive email with any links, information, and deadlines. Be sure to check on them politely as the deadline nears.

Don’t forget to have back-up recommenders in case something prevents the top choice from writing. If you follow these tips you are sure to have the best recommendations possible. That will put you one step closer to grad school admission. 📝


Laurie Martin, Stratus Prep - HeadshotLaurie Martin is the Director of Undergraduate and Graduate Consulting at Stratus Prep. She she has ten years of experience in admissions consulting, including work at one of the country’s top college preparatory schools. She has her B.A. from Columbia and a master’s degree from NYU.  A former journalist and published author; Laurie is also a former All-American athlete who understands the most important aspects of the college process and how to get an edge on the competition. Learn more about Stratus Prep’s Graduate School Admissions Consulting here.

  1. Jessica October 24, 2016 at 4:16 am

    Thanks for the info, Laurie.
    I already have a masters degree and have been working full time since undergrad. I have been out of school for seven years and would like to go back to get my phd. Do you have suggestions on who to ask for recommendations? I feel comfortable asking one grad school professor since I had him for more than one course, but I don’t know how much the other professors remember my work. I have another professor from undergrad that will remember me and my work – but do selection committees take stock in recommendations from undergraduate work? I recently took the gre and did fine on the verbal section but had a score I feel most committees would laugh at on the quant section (well below any practice test I took). I plan to take the gre one more time before deadline submissions but I’m worried I may not bring up my quant enough for schools to take me seriously. I feel like I need strong recommendations and I’m not sure who to ask since I have been out of school for so long. Is it even possible for schools to consider you (with strong recommendations, high gpa, plenty of extra curriculars) without meeting the minimum score required on gre(quant/combined)?!?! I appreciate the help.