Whether you're applying to business school, medical school, law school, or another program, scholarship, or fellowship, most graduate school applicants are going to need two to three letters of recommendation that will be submitted to the admissions committee (along with your undergraduate transcripts, standardized test scores, essays, etc.) as part of the application process.
Not every school requires letters of recommendation. You can often get by without one at some online schools and even brick-and-mortar schools that have more relaxed admission requirements. However, schools with highly competitive admissions processes (i.e. the ones that get a lot of applicants but don't have classroom space for everyone) use recommendation letters, in part, to determine whether or not you are a fit for their school.
Why Graduate Schools Ask for Recommendations
Graduate schools seek recommendations for the same reason employers require career references. They want to know what people who have seen your work and experienced your efforts firsthand have to say about you. Nearly every other resource you provide to a school is a first-person accounting. Your résumé is your interpretation of your career achievements, your essay answers a question with your opinion or tells a story from your point of view, and your admissions interview includes questions that, again, are answered from your point of view. A recommendation letter, on the other hand, is all about someone else's perspective on you, your potential, and your accomplishments.
Most graduate schools encourage you to choose a reference who knows you well. This ensures that their letter of recommendation will actually have substance and won't simply be full of fluff or vague opinions about your work attitude and academic performance. Someone who knows you well will be able to provide well-informed opinions and concrete examples to back them up.
Sample Letter of Recommendation for Grad School
This is a sample recommendation for a graduate school applicant was written by the applicant's college dean, who was familiar with the applicant's academic achievements. The letter is short but does an ample job of emphasizing things that would be important to a graduate school admissions committee, such as GPA, work ethic, and leadership ability. Notice how the writer includes plenty of adjectives to describe the person being recommended. There's also an example of how the subject's leadership capability has helped others.
To Whom It May Concern:
As the Dean of Stonewell College, I have had the pleasure of knowing Hannah Smith for the last four years. She has been a tremendous student and an asset to our school. I would like to take this opportunity to recommend Hannah for your graduate program.
I feel confident that she will continue to succeed in her studies. Hannah is a dedicated student and thus far, her grades have been exemplary. In class, she has proven to be a take-charge person who is able to successfully develop plans and implement them.
Hannah has also assisted us in our admissions office. She has successfully demonstrated leadership ability by counseling new and prospective students. Her advice has been a great help to these students, many of whom have taken time to share their comments with me regarding her pleasant and encouraging attitude.
It is for these reasons that I offer high recommendations for Hannah without reservation. Her drive and abilities will truly be an asset to your establishment. If you have any questions regarding this recommendation, please do not hesitate to contact me.
Dean of Stonewell College
As positive as this letter is, it would have been even stronger if the writer had provided additional specific examples of his student's achievements, or had pointed to quantifiable results. For example, he could have included the numbers of students the subject had worked with or detailed specific instances in which she had helped others. Examples of any plans she'd developed, how she implemented them, and what the outcome was once they were put to use would have been useful as well. The more detailed the letter, the more likely it is to tip the admissions scale in your favor.