How to Ask Your Boss for a Letter of Recommendation for Graduate School

You've decided to take the plunge and go to graduate school—congratulations! Many of your peers are also going back to school. According to the latest U.S. Census, the number of people aged 25 and up with a master's degree has doubled to 21 million since 2000.

As you assemble your application packet, an important piece of the puzzle will be quality letters of recommendation. Great recommendations can set you apart from other applicants. Your boss is the ideal person to ask because they can vouch for your professionalism, character traits, and experience—three primary attributes graduate schools will be looking at as they evaluate applications.

Identify the right boss

If you work for an organization where you have multiple bosses, you'll want to identify the right one to ask—it goes without saying this should be someone with whom you're on good terms. Additionally, try to ask a person who you've spent a meaningful amount of time with. Here are some additional questions to consider before making your request.

  • Do you have a good rapport?
  • Does your boss know your strengths, and can she accurately speak to the value they'd bring to the grad program?
  • Have you previously done anything to leave a blight on your record? (i.e. bailed on a key presentation or another important task)

If you're not currently employed, but still need a professional recommendation, think about your history with previous bosses. For instance, if you left your job mid-project, didn't give two weeks' notice, or had any other problematic issues, you'll want to find another person to ask.

Let your boss know your plans

At the appropriate time, talk to your boss about how a graduate degree would help you add value to his organization. If your boss thinks you're going to cut and run once you graduate, this might strain your relationship. You can alleviate this potential issue by discussing internal promotional opportunities or other ways a degree would be beneficial.

Ask for the letter in advance

Plan to make your recommendation request at least a month before your application deadline. This gives your boss enough time to plan a thoughtful recommendation and will ensure they have enough time to get the letter submitted before the deadline.

  • Have a personable conversation. Tell your boss about your grad school plans and politely ask for a recommendation. If you don't see her daily, make an appointment with her—if this isn't possible, call her or write a formal letter. 
  • Be thoughtful about your request. Tell your boss specifically why you've chosen him, such as how much you've appreciated the opportunities you've had, what you've learned from him, or how you've grown professionally from his guidance.
  • Give an easy out. If your boss seems unenthusiastic or gives any inkling, she doesn’t want to write the letter, bow out gracefully. You don't want a lukewarm recommendation attached to your application.
  • Follow up with a written request. Be prepared to give your boss all the details he’ll need, along with deadlines, transcripts, resume, or other documents to help provide him with specific details. 

No one likes to be put on the spot—avoid this awkwardness and give plenty of notice when you ask. After all, your boss is doing you a professional courtesy and it's important to show you value their time.

Send a thank-you letter

Remember to follow up with your boss by sending a thank you note for the recommendation. Reiterate how much you appreciate her support in your efforts to further your education and career. Even after you submit your application, plan to provide your boss with updates. After all, if you're accepted, this affects them too.

Grad school is a big step, regardless of your current career stage. The recommendations you receive can go a long way in helping you get accepted to your chosen program.

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