Recommendation Letter for PhD 101 — The Admit Lab

Philippe Barr, PhD
6 min readJan 31, 2023


If you want to get into a high-level doctoral program, then securing an outstanding recommendation letter for PhD admissions is essential. It can be intimidating to reach out to people who seem bigger and smarter than you, asking them for help as they evaluate your candidacy. But don’t let it daunt you: with a positive attitude, self-motivation, interpersonal skills, and some know-how, that daunting task becomes doable!

Thankfully, the right guidance can help make sure your recommendation meets the mark of success in the eyes of the admissions committee of your dream graduate program and gives you the edge in your PhD application process. In this blog post, we’ll dive into how to secure an amazing letter of recommendation for admission to graduate school!

A letter of recommendation is like a “Vote of Confidence” in your doctoral aspirations! Getting that perfect letter can be the difference between an accepted application, and one lost among a sea full of excellent applicants.

An impressive endorsement from someone who knows you well and who chooses to strongly recommend you could make up for any doubts about lower test results — but don’t get too comfortable; having a generic letter of recommendation filled with empty accolades can spoil even flawless transcripts and a stellar statement of purpose.

Why is a Recommendation Letter for PhD Admissions So Important?

PhD programs are searching for students who will not only excel in the classroom but also bring something special to their department. What do we mean by something special? In addition to academic strengths, personal character, social qualities, and research skills can distinguish a remarkable student from suitable candidates. One of the best ways to demonstrate your readiness is to have a professor from your past provide a letter of recommendation that shows you can handle the challenging requirements of a doctoral course and secure rewarding research positions after graduation.

Despite their incredible importance, letters of recommendation are largely overlooked by many PhD applicants. After all, it can be intimidating to ask someone for a letter of recommendation that one won’t even get the chance to read! However, crafting thoughtful requests and building strong relationships with professors could prove very beneficial in the admissions process — so don’t let this essential component become an afterthought.

With a PhD on the horizon, a letter of recommendation can make or break you. Don’t leave it to chance; take action! Ensure your references provide rich insights into who you are and what capabilities you possess by following several simple steps that will help guarantee glowing recommendations and might become the deciding factor in your admissions into a top PhD program.

What are PhD Admissions Committees Looking for in a Letter of Recommendation?

When evaluating a letter of recommendation for a PhD program, every admissions committee is looking for an honest and comprehensive assessment of the applicant’s strengths and weaknesses.

The letter should provide evidence to the admission committee that the applicant has the academic abilities, focus, motivation, passion, and dedication necessary to succeed in doctoral-level work. It should give details about how the applicant has developed their skills over time and the academic or research areas they are likely to excel in. It should also provide evidence of the applicant’s ability to work independently, collaborate with peers on projects, conduct research work, and demonstrate creative problem-solving capabilities.

The person writing the letter should be someone who can speak authoritatively about the applicant’s positive qualities. Ultimately, the letter should provide an accurate and holistic view of the applicant that provides all the information necessary to help admissions committees make informed decisions about their candidacy.

Guarantee Your Success with a Personalized Approach to Your PhD Letters of recommendation.

To secure top-notch letters of recommendation for your PhD application, here are four strategies that you should consider:

Get an Early Start

If you’re considering graduate school, don’t wait until the application deadline to start thinking about your letters of recommendation! Achieving quality references for these documents requires thoughtful networking over some time — so get started as soon as possible so that you can obtain your letter in a timely manner. With letters from trusted mentors and colleagues holding significant sway in this process, it’s certainly worth taking that extra effort early on!

Be Strategic in Your Selection

To ensure you get the best letter of recommendation, start by considering your potential recommender’s rank. Reach for a full or associate professor who has extensive experience in teaching and research, rather than an adjunct with limited knowledge — this carries more weight when applying! Then search out professors who teach courses within your field of study that you achieved strong results in; these experts are sure to write glowing appraisals on your behalf.

Get to Know Your Recommender

Achieving good grades is an essential part of succeeding in college courses, however, a stellar letter of recommendation requires more than just exemplary performance. Building a relationship with the professor and leveraging office hours to engage in meaningful discussions about your accomplishments and graduate school plans can be instrumental when you are seeking exceptional letters which draw attention from admissions staff. Take advantage now to stand out!

Pursuing a PhD can be the perfect starting point for a relationship with a professor. Taking time to get acquainted is certainly beneficial: it allows you to assess their enthusiasm and trustworthiness, while also giving them an idea of your ambitions. Forming this type of bond can take quite a while, so you can never contact your recommenders early enough. And don’t forget-staying in touch after initial introductions ensures that when a person speaks about you later on, they’ll speak from experience!

Help Your Recommenders

To ensure your professors will write you an outstanding letter of recommendation for graduate school, make the process as easy and convenient for them as possible. Giving ample time is essential to success; however, don’t forget to gently remind professors about deadlines with periodic check-ins so they can remain aware of your progress!

Providing your professor with comprehensive information about your skills, accomplishments, and any project you might be working on is essential for crafting the best letter of recommendation possible. Not only should you supply the name of the program, department, and university to which you are applying, but also include any relevant assignments from their class, transcripts, or CV in order to give them an accurate portrayal of who you are as a candidate and potential professional.

Do not forget that it is always courteous — even necessary — to thank professors throughout this process; additionally, make sure to send one final note expressing appreciation once the letters have been sent off!

The PhD application process offers you a unique opportunity to showcase your networking abilities: a great letter of recommendation can have a significant influence when it comes to acceptance into programs, so be confident and demonstrate to your professors and peers that you are a true leader. Don’t see these as obstacles, but rather ways for you to get ahead and sharpen the interpersonal skills that will help make sure your success in academics is lasting! After all, research isn’t only about isolation — there’s also an element of savvy socializing involved in becoming an academic leader.


With these action steps in mind, you should be on your way to securing the best possible recommendation letters for your PhD applications. But if you need a little extra help selecting a recommender or even writing a letter of recommendation for yourself (I know, it sounds weird but it happens quite often: faculty members are often quite busy), I am here to help.

I offer a variety of services designed to help make your PhD application process as smooth and successful as possible. Don’t hesitate to contact me today to learn more about how I can help you get the best application ever!

Originally published at on January 31, 2023.



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: