How to Get Letters of Rec When You’ve Been Out of School — The Admit Lab

Philippe Barr, PhD
8 min readMar 23, 2023

It’s no secret that having strong letters of recommendation can make or break your grad school applications. But if you’re like most adults who have been out of school for a few years, getting recommendations from professors and other professionals may seem like an impossible task. Don’t worry — whether it’s been weeks or decades since you’ve stepped foot on campus, I’m here to show you how to get letters of rec when you’ve been out of school for a while! Read on to find out tips on how to get letters of rec when you’ve been out of school.

Do letters of rec for grad school have to be from professors?

This question can be tricky. It varies depending on which graduate school you are applying for and their requirements. If the institution does not require letters of recommendation from professors, then you may have some leeway in this section of your application! In this case, it is beneficial to request a letter of recommendation from an academic professor as they are equipped with the knowledge and experience to more accurately attest to your scholarly capabilities.

Nevertheless, don’t be disheartened if you can’t secure a letter of recommendation from an educator. As you will see below, you can still get feedback on your academic abilities by reaching out to people who have worked with you in the past or other professionals who know about your skills and knowledge.

Warning: To ensure your strongest case for admission, it’s best to refrain from including letters of recommendation from friends and family members who may not be able to speak as definitively about your academic skills.

Options to Consider

Figuring out how to get letters of rec when you’ve been out of school for a while can be a bit more challenging if your education is out of date. Nevertheless, it is still possible to obtain strong recommendations that speak positively about your qualifications.

Here are ways to find the letters you need:

Professors

Start by reaching out to former professors. It is common for professors to receive requests from former students, even if it has been years since they have been in their classes. It might be a request for letters of recommendation or help with career advice-either way, professors are often happy to help out former students who reach out. They often appreciate seeing the lasting impact they made on their students. Professors might not remember all of their former students, but those that do reach out will likely find someone willing to offer assistance and guidance, so do not be shy to ask. There are two types of professors you can tap for a letter.

  • A close professor: You can draw upon old contacts with your former professors that you had a particularly good rapport. Whether it was doing research together, having lengthy discussions in their office, or getting acquainted more outside of the classroom — professors at the undergraduate level could be a great potential connection for this strategy. When it comes to writing a recommendation letter, these individuals are the ideal person to provide one since they have intimate knowledge of you. Not only can they speak highly of your character and skill set, but their thoughtful letter will be filled with detail that sets you apart from other applicants-making it undoubtedly one of the strongest letters you can get.
  • A professor that taught you and gave you a stellar grade: Your second choice for academic references is a former professor, whom you may not have been close to, but can still provide insight into your scholastic abilities. Unlike other letters of reference which are more free-form and speak to your character, these types of letters will be more factual in nature. Although this letter may lack a bit of spark, it is still beneficial to have someone who understands your academic history compose one for you. Those individuals with the capability and habit of writing letters often are in an ideal position to do so for you.

Employer:

Another strategy to get letters of rec when you’ve been out of school of a while is asking employers who remember you fondly, as they are likely to have the most insight into your strengths and abilities. When selecting a former colleague to write a letter of recommendation for grad school, it is essential to choose someone who knows you well and can speak to your abilities and accomplishments. It is best to start by considering supervisors from previous jobs that you have had a positive relationship with. It is important to get a strong letter of recommendation from someone who can attest to your academic abilities, work ethic, and overall qualifications. This is why it is typically best to ask a supervisor rather than a colleague for a letter of recommendation; they can speak to your strengths and weaknesses more authoritatively. Supervisors can provide detailed information about specific projects you have completed and how you have performed in the workplace, making their letter of recommendation a valuable asset to your application. Additionally, supervisors can speak to your leadership abilities, problem-solving skills, and communication skills, all of which are key to succeeding in graduate school. Asking a supervisor for a letter of recommendation also demonstrates initiative and professionalism — two traits all graduate schools look for in applicants.

Alumni of the program:

Asking alumni for a letter of recommendation can be extremely helpful when applying to graduate school. Alumni are familiar with the institution’s academic standards, expectations, and curriculum-and they have likely seen graduates go on to successful careers in their chosen fields. They also may know faculty members from their own time as students, which can provide an additional level of insight into your ability to succeed in the program. Additionally, having a well-written letter of recommendation from someone who is already part of the university community can help your application stand out from other applicants. Finally, alumni are often willing to offer advice and guidance throughout the entire process of applying to graduate school — something that is invaluable during such a stressful time!

A peer or colleague in your field who already holds the degree you’re applying for

If those options aren’t available, contact any peers or colleagues in your field who already hold the degree you’re applying for. This person can speak specifically about your abilities, skills, and accomplishments in an area related to the program or field you wish to pursue. They may also be able to provide helpful insights as to why you would make an ideal candidate for the program because they already know the skills and abilities needed to succeed.

A community leader or peer in community service

A letter of recommendation from a community leader or a person you have done community service with is highly valuable for graduate school applications. Such individuals can attest to your character and provide insight into how you interact with people in the community, demonstrating your commitment to service. Not only will such letters demonstrate that you are engaged in your local community, but they will also show admissions committees that you have made an impact on those around you and that you care about improving yourself and your surroundings. Additionally, these letters may be seen as more reliable than recommendations from teachers who may not have witnessed the same level of commitment to service.

Tip: provide guidelines!

When asking for letters of recommendation, it is important to guide your non-academic recommenders. Many graduate school applications require letters of recommendation from teachers and professors that can attest to an applicant’s achievement and potential in their chosen field of study. While non-academic professionals might be well qualified to vouch for your character or relevant skill set, they might not know how to write a letter of recommendation for grad school. For non-academic letters of recommendation to be effective, it’s important to communicate clearly what qualities the program would like these recommenders to focus on when writing the letter. This ensures that all information provided about you is accurate and relevant, as well as tailored specifically toward the program to which you are applying.

In conclusion

Attending graduate school after a gap year or taking time away from formal education can be a scary and uncertain task to undertake. Even if you’re feeling unworthy of success, it’s important to remember that with the right strategy, you have the potential to figure out how to get letters of rec when you’ve been out of school.

Take advantage of every opportunity for professional and personal growth to put yourself in the best position possible — like staying engaged with your contacts from previous jobs and striving for excellence in all areas of life. Most importantly, however, never forget your worth; you are smart, capable, and ready for the challenge!

Don’t hesitate any longer — take charge of your future by utilizing these tips, or if you would like to discuss your situation more in-depth and sign up for a free admission consultation today. Good luck on your journey through grad school!

With a Master’s from McGill University and a Ph.D. from New York University, Philippe Barr is the founder of The Admit Lab. As a tenure-track professor, Dr. Barr spent a decade teaching and serving on several graduate admission committees at UNC-Chapel Hill before turning to full-time consulting. With more than seven years of experience as a graduate school admissions consultant, Philippe has stewarded the candidate journey across multiple master’s and Ph.D. programs and helped hundreds of students get admitted to top-tier graduate programs all over the world.

Originally published at https://admit-lab.com on March 23, 2023.

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Philippe Barr, PhD

I am Philippe Barr, founder of The Admit Lab, a graduate school admissions consultancy that helps students get admitted into grad school: https://admit-lab.com/