How to land a good letter of recommendation: Advice from an admissions expert

How to land a good letter of recommendation: Advice from an admissions expert

by Mary Beth Carroll, Assistant Director of Student Affairs in the Office of Student Engagement and Practice at the University of Michigan School of Public Health.

Most graduate school applications require two to three letters of recommendation, which provide another dimension to your application and, when viewed alongside other factors such as your GPA, professional experience and personal essays, can help faculty reviewers get a sense for whether you can succeed in your program of interest.

The process of securing letters of recommendation can be stressful or confusing for some applicants. As the Assistant Director of Student Affairs at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, I have helped guide hundreds of prospective students through the applicant process. Here, I’ll explain the steps you can take, and some of my top tips, for securing strong letters of recommendation.

At Michigan Public Health,  we encourage a quality-over-quantity lens when it comes to fulfilling this requirement, meaning that a page length high-quality letter from a recommender who knows you well will be more valuable than a long letter that lacks detail and specific examples.

Quick Tip: As you gather information on programs you’re interested in, be sure to do it early to ensure you have time to familiarize yourself with what is required. Keep an eye out for details about application materials such as essay prompts and standardized test or professorial work requirements prior to beginning the application process. 

Weighing Your Options 

If you have been outside the academic setting for an extended period of time, it may be challenging to identify references. We encourage our applicants to choose people who can speak to their potential to succeed both in an academic and professional setting. 

Depending on your background and specific situation, consider the following as potential recommenders:

  • Professors in your major of study
  • An employer or supervisor
  • Academic advisor
  • Professional mentor from a relevant volunteer or professional experience

We advise applicants against using a friend or relative for a graduate school recommendation. In addition, public health faculty reviewers like to see letters on official letterhead (a document with a heading that includes a company/affiliation logo, company name, address, and contact information), when possible, along with a full signature including the writer’s company or professional affiliation, job title, and contact information. You can make a good impression with these small considerations — making sure all components of your application display professionalism and thoughtfulness.  

Ask Away!

Prior to engaging with potential recommenders, it is best to review the program’s application process and timeline, so you are prepared to convey exactly what you need. It is ideal to provide recommenders ample time to write their recommendation, as they likely have busy schedules and multiple competing demands. If possible, schedule an in-person or virtual meeting to discuss your desire to attend graduate school and potentially include them as a recommender. Also, make sure they are familiar with the program and field you are applying to. When we advise applicants, we always mention this as many people aren’t familiar with what public health is or the career trajectory our students have. If you are unable to meet in person or virtually, it’s also appropriate to initiate contact via email.

Quick Tip: The letter of recommendation submission process has come a long way! In 2020, the majority of graduate school applications, including the Michigan Public Health application, allow recommenders to electronically submit a letter. During this process, applicants share recommenders’ names and contact information. From there, the system initiates contact, provides reminders, and offers instructions for submission.

Provide Relevant Materials 

You want to make a recommender’s role straightforward and easy, so after your conversation, follow-up with them to provide an updated resume/CV, transcripts, essays, and overview of the process and timeline. A short paragraph or bulleted list of the items you would like a reference to touch on is a helpful tool for them and a good way to ensure your major accomplishments are highlighted. 

Quick Tip: As you navigate the process of securing recommenders, remember to communicate your reasoning for pursuing graduate school, future career goals, and what you can contribute to the discipline. For example, you might say something like this: “I am applying to the Population and Health Sciences MPH program at the University of Michigan because I want to gain the skills necessary to start a career as a community health worker. I’m passionate about teaching children and new mothers about nutrition and other early-life health considerations.”

Say Thank You

It is important to compose a proper thank you note to each recommender. In addition, once you determine your next steps, it is appropriate to share your future plans with them. Communicating both of these messages will allow you to continue to foster a relationship and keep the door open if additional support is needed down the road.

A Final Thought

While letters of recommendation are important, remember that they are just one peice of your complete application package. At Michigan Public Health, like many other schools, we practice a holistic review process in which faculty reviewers give careful consideration to all credentials presented by each applicant. This ensures that no single factor leads to either accepting or denying an applicant.

Consider an Online Public Health Degree at Michigan Public Health 

Are you looking for an opportunity to contribute to a better world? Right now, the world needs public health, and public health needs you. Now more than ever, we need passionate and capable public health professionals, and since 1941, the University of Michigan School of Public Health has been helping students become just that. We are excited to have the opportunity to reach a broader audience through our newly designed online Master of Science and Master of Public Health degrees in Population and Health Sciences.

As an online learner, you will gain access to everything our school and community has to offer. You will be taught by the same top-notch faculty who teach our residential classes. Our school has consistently earned top rankings for the programs and resources we offer. Staff from the Office for Student Engagement and Practice will be there every step of the way as we work to provide you with quality student life opportunities, enriching practice experiences, and support through career preparation programming. 

We’re here to help you discover how an online degree in public health can fit into your life, so reach out to our team today at to learn more!