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Guidelines for Letters of Recommendation

How to Select Writers

Letters should be written by individuals in a position to evaluate you and who are familiar with your capabilities in the field. Select people who know you well from more than one area of activity in your life, if possible. They are generally professional references, not personal or character references, unless that is specifically asked for. The most helpful letters come from faculty who have had contact with you in a classroom or non classroom setting, such as a research lab. The person writing the letter should know you well enough to write a strong, personalized letter.

References may be professors, advisors, mentors, supervisors of work, projects, internships or campus or community activities. Professors who have taught for a number of years can compare you favorably with larger numbers of students. Consider writers who may be familiar with the colleges to which you are applying, possibly an alumni of that college.

Always contact your potential writers to ask their willingness and ability to serve as a reference, when requesting a letter or giving their name as a reference during the application process. Make an appointment, and meet with them.

What to Provide

Provide your writers with a copy of your resume and personal statement for reference, and if appropriate, possibly documents such as transcripts, evaluations or autobiography. If a form or additional materials are required, ask if they would be willing to complete the forms, and provide them with any information or descriptions of programs that may help them.

If a letter is to be sent directly to an college, provide an addressed, stamped envelope. Let the writer know a time by which the letter needs to be received by the college, and give them sufficient time to prepare it (at least one month, preferably longer).


Letters provide information about you from a point of view other than your own. They indicate the capacity in which the writer knows you, i.e., as a professor, supervisor, etc. The writer may also state how long they've known you, and in which classes or projects. 

Effective letters typically mention your specific accomplishments and activities; they should be descriptive of quality achievement and performance. You can write a statement of characteristics, activities, or accomplishments you would like mentioned. The letter should reflect the style of the individual writing.


Colleges may want the letters sent directly to them, with the student waiving the right to read the letter prior to its mailing. Select your letter writers carefully; have confidence they will comment favorably. Always send a thank you.  It is suggested that you later follow up with your letter writers to share the outcome of your graduate school application process.

Letters are usually sent to colleges as part of the application file. Follow the guidelines provided to know where to have letters sent, if they are to be sent directly from the letter writer, and deadlines for receipt of all materials. An application file may be started with additional materials such as letters and test scores arriving later.

If you plan to take time off between Cal Poly and applying to graduate school, it is a good idea to stay in touch with faculty you may later request a letter from.  Before you graduate and leave campus, consider meeting with potential recommenders, inform them of your anticipated timeline and ask if they are willing to serve as a letter writers once your application process begins. To ensure your faculty advocates are well-prepared, communicate periodically sharing updates on what you are doing in your field, your plans for graduate school, etc.

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