Aug 3, 2023

How Many Letters of Recommendation are Needed for Grad School?

Wordvice HJ

It’s early fall, so you’ve hopefully already narrowed down which graduate schools you want to apply to. If not, it’s not too late! Whether you have your list or are still trying to identify your top choices, the following guide will give you a quick overview of some key considerations and steps you need to take to ensure a smooth graduate school admissions process. We will provide a separate guide for MBA, medical, and law school admissions. And don’t forget to receive professional essay editing services for your important application essays before submitting them to schools.

Applying to Graduate School

What do you need to do and when? Let’s take a look at the list of key factors and action items below.

planning letter of recommendation

A. Planning.  Make a spreadsheet using software like Microsoft Excel or Google Sheets.

The first column should list all schools to which you want to apply. The remaining columns should include factors like:

recommendation letter scheduling
  • Admissions website
  • Application website
  • Admissions office contact information (name of a contact person, e-mail address, and phone number)
  • Deadline
  • Required tests and test dates (note existing test dates or include a reminder for any future test date. Make sure the scores will be released ahead of the admissions deadlines).
  • Official test scores (note whether or not you’ve sent scores directly to the university. In most cases, you will need to send official scores).
  • Number of recommendations required
  • Recommender 1, Recommender 2, etc. (make as many columns as the maximum number of required recommenders, and write one recommender’s name in each column for each school).
  • Application Fee
  • Transcript(s)
  • Statement(s) of Purpose
  • Resume
  • English language proficiency test scores (if English isn’t your first language)
  • GPA
  • Writing samples (when required)
  • Specific departmental requirements (a separate column for each requirement)
  • Once you have made your spreadsheet, make sure to update it whenever you complete a task, or make notes when you have taken steps toward a given goal in each category. For example:
  • Pre-completion: “Requested rec: 9/22”
  • After completion: “Requested rec.: 9/22”
  • Also, make sure to note which FORMAT (.pdf, .docx, sealed, official letterhead, etc.) each document should be in when you submit it to the admissions office for each school.
  • Make a separate spreadsheet for school-specific financial considerations and grant programs for which you might be applying.
planning letter of recommendation

B. Deadlines

For fall admissions, most schools set their deadlines between December 1 and mid-January. Carefully check each school’s and department’s website! Some schools will allow you to submit your application before you receive test scores and recommendation letters.

planning letter of recommendation

C. Recommendation Letters

  • Most graduate schools require 3 letters of recommendation. However, you should double-check how many each school requires, and do NOT send more than asked for. Sending too many letters or information not requested by the school, can actually HURT your candidacy.
  • Carefully decide who would be in the best position to assess your work in the field for which you are applying. Ideally, obtain letters from faculty members who know you well. You should have received an “A” in these professors’ classes and be able to approach them to discuss your graduate school plans. In a less ideal situation (and it happens to all of us!), approach lesser-known faculty members who are specialists in the field for which you want to apply. Not having recommendations from someone in the field you want to study is a big red flag for many schools! The next best letters would be from faculty in other departments. You should NOT seek personal recommendations from family and friends.
  • Give recommenders enough time to draft your letters; two to three months is a good amount of time. You should also provide them with a CV or resume and a one-page write-up of your research interests, goals, and experience. These documents will give them additional information they can use to write their recommendation letters. You will probably need to provide them with login information and other instructions about how to use any applicable online recommendation services or complete any required forms.
  • As a rule of thumb, don’t ask your recommenders to prepare more than 3 letters.
  • Periodically check in with your recommenders to make sure they’re on track to complete letters by the deadline. However, don’t annoy them! Checking in once every few weeks should be sufficient.
  • Generally, you can either waive the right to see a copy of the recommendation letter or not. We recommend that you always waive the right to access the recommendation letters, since this will give schools more confidence that the recommenders are writing honestly about their opinion of you. Therefore, make sure you choose people who will write positive recommendations!
  • Sometimes, you might unintentionally learn of negative comments about you in one of the recommendation letters; or, perhaps you get waitlisted and the school tells you that you have received a negative recommendation. Don’t panic! You can look for two additional people to write you a positive recommendation. These references don’t need to be faculty members, but they should be able to provide a reasonably objective opinion. If you know which specific issues were raised in the negative review, you can ask the two new recommenders to address these point.
  • Recommendation letter editing is recommended for referees whose native language is not English.
planning letter of recommendation, writing samples

D. Writing Samples

  • Many schools use writing samples to weed out weak candidates after schools make their first round of cuts. Choose your best writing sample, one that demonstrates you are ready for graduate-level work. It should highlight your ability to write clearly and methodically.
  • Do NOT exceed the page limit set by the school, and don’t send too short a sample, either.
planning letter of recommendation, statement of purpose

E. Statement of Purpose (SOP).

  • Pay close attention to word limits.
  • make sure that you are addressing the questions in the prompt. Generally, you should focus on one or two projects that you would like to pursue in graduate school and flex your intellectual muscles.
  • The SoP isn’t your autobiography; it’s a road map of how you think and what skills you have. You want to convince your future school that you are mentally ready to tackle the issues you want to explore.
  • We’ll provide a more detailed article on how to tackle the SoP in another post.
  • Be sure to get Statement of Purpose editing before submitting it to your target school.
planning letter of recommendation, GRE and subject tests

F. Tests

  • The GRE GENERAL Test.
  • Unless you are applying to business, law or medical school, most schools require the GRE.
  • As a general rule, schools usually don’t have a minimum. Statistically, however, your scores should be, at a minimum, in the 600s for many schools and in the 700s for top-tiered schools. With that said, admissions officers do NOT consider your GRE scores as the most important indicator of your future success in graduate school. If you have a well-rounded application and a strong portfolio, you will have better odds than someone who only has good grades. Just the same, plan ahead to give yourself enough time to study for the GRE so that you take the test only 1 to 2 times. Taking a test more than 3 times is overkill and usually results in diminishing returns.
  • The following is a table of registration deadlines for PAPER-delivered GRE General Tests. For COMPUTER-delivered tests, most centers offer year-round testing on a first-come, first-served basis. Check with your local Prometric test center.

You can take the GRE General Test once every 21 days, up to five times within any continuous rolling 12-month period (365 days). This applies even if you canceled your scores on a test taken previously.

Taking the GRE Test at Home

The GRE General Test at home is available around the clock, seven days a week, with appointments available as early as 24 hours after you register. To be able to take the test at home, you must meet the Equipment and Environment Requirements.

Register for the GRE

Taking the GRE at a Test Center

The GRE General Test is offered year-round at Prometric® test centers, and on specific dates at additional testing locations outside of the Prometric test center network.

Find GRE test centers and dates

Additional References

When are the 2023-2024 GRE test dates?

In the 2023–24 testing year, the GRE Subject Tests will be administered worldwide on the following dates:

  • September 25, 2023, through October 8, 2023
  • October 24, 2023, through November 6, 2023
  • April 7, 2024, through April 20, 2024

The computer-based or online GRE dates for 2023-2024 are available all year round, seven days a week. You can take a GRE Subject Test once every 14 days. This applies even if you canceled your scores on a test taken previously.

When selecting a test date, make sure your scores will be reported in time for your application deadlines. When choosing a test date, allow time for the delivery of scores and processing by the institution.

Getting Your GRE General Test Scores

What GRE test scores are reported?

SectionScore Scale
Verbal Reasoning130–170, in 1-point increments
Quantitative Reasoning130–170, in 1-point increments
Analytical Writing0–6, in half-point increments

If no questions are answered for a specific measure (e.g., Verbal Reasoning), then you will receive a No Score (NS) for that measure.

When will I get my GRE scores?

Your official GRE General Test scores will be available in your ETS account 10–15 days after your test date. You’ll receive an email from ETS when they are available.

ETS will also send an official Institution Score Report to the score recipients you designated on test day at that time.

What’s in my official score report?

Accessible in your ETS account, your official GRE Test-taker Score Report is intended only for your information and personal records. It contains your:

  • contact information (name, phone number, and email)
  • date of birth
  • gender
  • intended graduate major
  • test date(s)
  • GRE test score(s) and the associated percentile ranks
  • authorized score recipients or fellowship sponsors and the scores reported to those institutions
  • cumulative record of scores reported within the last 5 years

Wordvice Business & Writer Editing Services

After landing that sweet job position when you finish your graduate degree, be sure to get English editing services for any of your crucial documents before sending them to colleagues, clients, or users. Check out our list of business editing and writer editing services below.

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