How to Get a Grad School Letter of Recommendation as an Online Student

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So you’ve decided to apply to graduate school and need letters of recommendation, but you study online. How on Earth do you get a letter of recommendation from a professor you have never met in person?

I have been getting this question from students a lot in the last few months, and here’s what I tell them:

Yes, you can absolutely get a letter of recommendation from a professor who you have only “met” online.  In fact, you may have made more of an impression on your instructors through your writing and online discussions than you would have in a classroom.  There are, however, steps you need to take to ensure they write this most essential of graduate school application materials.

Start Early
You most likely will be out of luck if you just walk into a professor’s office and ask for a letter on the spot or send an urgent message demanding the letter on a tight deadline. You have to plan ahead, so start the process well before your application deadlines.    

Make Lists
List out the criteria needed for a good letter. This includes: a) your professor knows who you are; b) they know you well enough to write with authority;  c) they know your work; d) they have a high opinion of you; e) they are aware of your academic and career plans; f) they know where you are applying; g) they can favorably compare you with your peers; h) they are able to craft a well-written letter.

Then, make a list of faculty you have taken classes from, especially faculty you have had for multiple classes. Start to match up professors with your list. Remember that no one professor is going to meet all of the items on your list. But letters from multiple professors should help you meet most of the criteria you need to cover.

If you are having trouble selecting professors, consider:

  • Which faculty have you had the most contact with?
  • Have you had a professor or advisor that you have discussed your coursework with over several semesters?
  • Did you obtain a high grade for a lengthy and detailed paper?
  • Look over all of the work you have submitted. Are there one or two papers that you are particularly proud of?  What feedback did the professor provide?  Considering the feedback, do you think this professor might write a letter on your behalf?
  • Most graduate schools are going to require three letters of recommendation. Many students who attend school online for their undergraduate work find getting one or two letters is achievable, but getting three letters is challenging.  Consider non-faculty as your third letter writer. Have you worked or done an internship in an area related to your field of study?  Supervisors can write about your work ethic and motivation.


Request an Appointment
Ask to set up a time to call or Skype with your professors to discuss your plans for graduate school. Faculty members are usually flattered that you are seeking their advice, and they will set aside time for you. Email information to the faculty member right before your appointment time so they can review the documents as you are speaking with them. This way, if they have any questions, they can ask them at that time and won’t have to play email tag with you.

Be sure to ask early in the semester—don’t wait until too close to the end of the semester or just before school breaks, because schedules get busy and you are more likely to get a “no.”

Please note that you can ask your academic advisor to introduce you to a faculty member. Remember, your advisor works in the department and interacts with faculty all the time. They also know you and your career plans, so that makes the process a bit easier.

Provide essential information
To get the very best letters of recommendation, you need to provide those recommending you with all of the essential details. Don’t assume they will remember everything about you. Remind them what class you took from them, when you were in their class, and what research topic or paper you completed.

You can also put together a file with information about yourself that faculty members can refer to as they write their letter of recommendation. Include the following items: transcripts, a resume, admissions essays, courses you have taken with them, research experiences, internships or other applied experiences, honor societies, awards you have won, work experience, professional goals, the due date for the application, a copy of the application recommendation form, and a list of programs to which you are applying.

Seek a wide range of letters that illustrate your competence. Cultivate relationships with professionals whenever you can. No matter who is completing your letters of recommendation they need to address who you are, positively evaluate your work, and believe that you are a good candidate for graduate school.

Remember to begin early and follow up with your professors. Don’t nag them, but be sure to offer gentle reminders of the approaching deadlines. Once you have determined that the faculty have submitted their letters, remember to send thank you notes. You never know when you will need their assistance again!

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