Carnegie Mellon University

Letters of Reference

Don’t underestimate the value of good letters of reference.  In most Master’s, Ph.D., and M.D. programs, the applicants who make it to the second stage of evaluation all have similarly strong GPAs and test scores.  Glowing letters of reference help you to stand out, and can go a long way toward getting you an interview and an offer of admission. 

Your letter writers should be people who know you well and who can provide concrete examples of your skills and strengths.  The strongest letters of reference are those with specific anecdotes.  For example: “Jane is extremely dedicated.  She stayed late many times to help out in the lab and even once came in over the weekend when our lab manager was sick.” 

If you want to ask a faculty member that you don’t know well (for example, a professor from a larger class in which you got an A), we recommend setting up a meeting with them so that they can get to know you before you ask them to write the letter.

Start building relationships early.

Don’t wait until your junior or senior year to start getting to know your professors, supervisors, and faculty advisor.  Go to office hours or set up meetings with faculty members so that they can get to know you.   Tell them about your future plans and ask for their feedback.

Tailor to the program.

You should choose letter writers who can comment on your strengths in the areas that are most relevant to your intended field of study.  Your letter writers can be faculty members or supervisors from an internship, job, volunteer position, or other organization (for example, a sorority or fraternity).

For example, if you are applying for M.D. programs, you might want to ask one faculty member who works in a life sciences area (e.g. Biology, Chemistry, etc.) and one individual that worked with you in a clinical setting (for example, someone you shadowed at a hospital).  If you are applying to Ph.D. programs in Psychology, you will want to have at least one faculty member who can comment on your research ability (ideally, someone whose lab you worked in, or who supervised your honors thesis).  For clinical psychology, you’ll want someone who has worked with you in a clinical setting—perhaps during an internship at Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic. 

Talk to your faculty advisor if you are unsure about what kind of letter writers are the best fit for your programs.

First, do not feel bad about asking a faculty member for a letter of reference.  This is a part of their job as instructors, and they want to help you to reach your career goals!

We recommend an approach that is both respectful and direct.  An excellent strategy is to set up a meeting with your intended letter writer, tell them about your plans, and then ask: “Would you be willing to write me a strong letter of reference?” Take careful note of their response.  Some faculty members and mentors will clearly tell you that they don’t feel they are able to write you a strong letter, but if you have any doubt about their enthusiasm, consider looking elsewhere

After they agree to write the letter, thank them and give them a sense of when they can expect more details about deadlines, specific programs, etc.

Your goal is to keep your letter writer organized and to make their job as easy as possible.  You also have the opportunity to shape your letter by suggesting topics and anecdotes that they can include. 

We recommend giving each letter writer a packet (a binder, a folder, etc.) that includes:




A thank you letter


Thank your letter writers for helping you and remind them how much you enjoyed your experiences with them.


Your most up-to-date CV (for graduate school applications) or resume


Be sure to include information about:

  • Honors or awards
  • GPA
  • GRE, MCAT, or other test scores
  • Research experience
  • Presentations you’ve given
  • Your professional experience
  • Relevant extra-curricular activities or hobbies


The most recent draft of your statement of purpose


This helps your letter writers to get a better sense of your goals and what drew you to those programs.


A page titled “You are uniquely qualified to write about…”


This is your opportunity to tell your letter writers the things you’d most like them to focus on in the letter. This could be qualities you possess (Hard-working, personable) or skills that you have gained from working with them (designing a research study, working with patients, etc.)  Be sure to always follow each point with some specific examples (e.g. “I often came into the lab extra times to fill open experimenter slots.”).  Do not be shy—remind them why you are a star!

This is also a good place to ask your letter writers to address any perceived weaknesses in your application.  For example, if you had a particularly rough semester your sophomore year, you can ask your letter writer to comment on this and explain how well you’ve been doing since then.  It’s better to address weaknesses here than in your personal statement, so that you can keep your personal statement positive and future-oriented.


We recommend using bullets to format this content.


Detailed information about each of the programs where you are applying



This includes:

  • Name of school
  • Specific program you are applying to
  • Deadline for letter (bolded on page)
  • The submission method (electronic, paper, etc.)
    *Be sure to include a pre-addressed and stamped envelope (paper submission) or the link/website where letter writers should go to submit their letters (electronic submission)
  • Any instructions for letter writers that are specific to that school

We recommend sending an email to your letter writers 7-10 days before the letters are due.  In the email, you should include:

  • A few sentences thanking them for writing the letter
  • A reminder of when the letter is due (bold the date and make it stand out)
  • A link to the online submission system, or the address to which they should send the letter
  • Any other information they need to know in order to submit the letter (e.g. special requirements from the school)