Reference letters

by Mike

 What they are

Your reference letters are letters solicited by you, from faculty typically within your undergraduate institution. The letters give admissions committees a window into your qualities as a student and as a burgeoning academic researcher. That is to say, your reference letters are an opportunity for others to speak on your behalf and to vouch for your ability to perform well in a graduate program in philosophy.

Who to ask

Since one of the roles of the letters is to vouch for your ability to perform well in philosophy in particular, it is generally good to solicit philosophy professors to write them. Meanwhile, since the other main role of the letter is to speak on your behalf, it is generally good to seek out letter writers who are familiar with your work, as well as (if possible) with your outlook and learning process. Usually, this means finding letter writers who have taught philosophy courses that you’ve taken and done well in, as well as (where relevant) senior or honors research/thesis advisors.

“What if I don’t feel like anyone in philosophy is familiar with my outlook or my learning process?!” “What if I can’t think of enough people who are familiar?!” That’s all perfectly okay! And normal! In this case, I would suggest that you ask yourself the following questions. Are there any philosophy courses you did well in, or perhaps felt particularly happy with your participation within, or perhaps felt proud of the term paper topic you wrote on? Are there any philosophy professors who taught multiple of the courses that contributed to your interest in pursuing graduate work in the subject? Are there any philosophy professors who have some background in the broad research area within philosophy that you suspect you will want to pursue?

Try to answer these questions in the order I’ve just written, and the result should hopefully be a somewhat naturally ordered list of potential reference letter writers.

Depending on what kind of school you are coming from, it is possible that you simply do not know enough philosophy professors personally. Does it hurt your application? — It might, depending on where you’re applying to. We are currently circulating a questionnaire to professors to ask their opinions on this matter. So far people have expressed very different sentiments. A more comprehensive report will be written once we have enough respondents.

How to ask

Supposing you’ve written up a list as just outlined, the next step is to actually work your way down that list, asking faculty until you’ve secured enough letter writers (in my experience, typically three of them). I recommend writing an email to request a meeting with the given faculty member, ideally during their pre-arranged office hours (if possible).

In that email, I recommend being honest and forthright: you have decided that you would like to pursue graduate school in philosophy (unless you haven’t quite decided and would rather hear their advice, in which case say so!), and that [on account of reasons having to do with above list] they in particular came to mind as potentially able to write a strong letter of recommendation on your behalf. In that email, you might also offer to send them your application materials in a subsequent email if they are interested— e.g. your statement of purpose, CV, writing sample draft—, as well as a list of programs to which you intend to apply.

Try to be polite, as you are essentially asking for a bit of their labor (or at least are gauging their interest in performing that labor). Typically, whether or not they are willing to write a letter on your behalf depends on a mix of their own schedule during the relevant application seasons, along with whether or not they think that they are in the position to strongly advocate for you.

The first of these is largely out of your control, except for the fact that the earlier you manage to reach out to your potential letter writers, the more likely it is that they can fit you into their schedules. The second of these can often mean that they will want to meet with you, so as to discuss the matter more before hopping on board.

If you have a low GPA, particularly if your low GPA is due to an uncharacteristic dip at some point because of unusual circumstances or because it started out low and continually improved throughout your undergraduate studies, our preliminary data suggests that it might be good to alert (at least one of) your letter writers to these facts in such a meeting. This is because one valuable use of a letter is to explain the relevant extenuating circumstances surrounding that single number. Meanwhile, if your intended writing sample is on a different topic than what you say you want to study, this is something else to bring up in such a meeting. Another use of a letter can be to explain that discrepancy, for instance if your main interests were home-grown in a subject not taught at your institution.

If, after such a meeting, they say yes, then congratulations!

If, when all cards are laid on the table, they instead tell you that they would be uncomfortable writing on your behalf, then oh well! I recommend simply moving to the next person in the list. (Reference letters aren’t the sort of documents you want to procure by metaphorical teeth pulling.)

Finally, if you have a background/major in another discipline (or for other reasons have developed a close academic relationship with a mentor outside of philosophy), it is also reasonable to find letter writers from that discipline (or by that mentor)— in this case, make sure that at least some of your other reference letters are written by philosophers. This is partially because the letters are meant to vouch for you in the context of philosophy (as discussed above), but also because the letters will ultimately be read by philosophers. Since all academic communities feature their own implicit norms of practice, for better or worse it is a safe bet that philosophers will feel more comfortable and happy with documents written by those within their community.

A personal note

In my case, I pursued a mix of all these methods. I double-majored in physics and philosophy, and wrote a thesis in the latter. What this meant for me is that I had a strong relationship with a physics professor who became one of my letter writers (though they expressed reservations about the fact that they were only familiar with the norms of letter writing within their discipline), while my thesis advisor in philosophy became a natural person to write another. For the third reference letter, no one within philosophy popped up as the default candidate. Instead, I wrote up a list of other professors in philosophy along the lines above. The person who topped my list turned out to be someone who had taught two of my courses, each of which lay within the peripheries of my main interests.


  • Make a list of potential letter writers so that you don’t fret if someone early on declines.
  • Contact those potential letter writers early; at least 3 weeks before your application deadline. If they do not reply within a week, follow up with another email.
  • Be polite and honest when you contact potential letter writers, and share your CV, personal statement, and the list of school with them (drafts are okay). They may not read the documents, but they’re helpful references.
  • Particularly if you do not know them well, expect that potential letter writers will want to meet with you prior to agreeing or refusing to help. 

Additional resources

Responses from survey

In our survey to faculty members, we asked the following question:

Are you worried if it looks like none of the letter writers knows the applicant especially well?

Here are the answers (the overall theme seems to be: it’s better if you get to know at least some of your writers.)

  • Not terribly worried Some of our best students come from large state schools where they may not have had close contact with faculty. That said, it is a really good idea for students to meet with faculty about grad school applications and get feedback on their writing samples and statements of purpose.
  • It depends on the student and on the department. Ideally a student should have at least one letter writer who is very familiar with their work (someone the student has worked with on a project, for example), but this is easier in some departments than others.
  • No. I am against given much importance letters of recommendation
  • No. But they won’t get in if that’s the case.
  • That’s a bit worrisome. Only having writers who don’t know the suggest well suggests that the people who know the application (there usually are some) might not have been willing to write.
  • It is harder to evaluate applicants when the letter writers do not know them particularly well. It is not worrisome by itself, but it means that the applicant is comparatively disadvantaged, in that other applicants may have letter writers who can give great detail about them. The issue not one of knowing the applicant personally, but having some substance, some detail, in the letter. Applicants who do not think their letter writers know them particularly well can really help themselves, and their writers!, by giving some direction when asking for a letter. Things like, I got a good grade in that class a year ago with you, and even though I did not speak frequently, as you might recall, I attended very regularly. I got Score X on the short assignments, and did a long paper on Y, which received a grade of Z. I am now using a revised version of that as a writing sample for grad school, and was hoping you could say something about my performance in that class in the letter.
  • It would depend on the seniority of the candidate. If they are just coming out of undergraduate study, then less so. If they have a Masters degree, then this could be a concern.
  • yes
  • No, but indication that they do will help an applicant stand out.
  • That’s a bit worrisome. Only having writers who don’t know the suggest well suggests that the people who know the application (there usually are some) might not have been willing to write.
  • No, the letters are really hard to assess. After a while you can start to get a feel for how certain faculty members write their letters (e.g. do they tend to simply praise the application at every turn, or do they usually write more nuanced, balanced letters?), but if the letter writer is unfamiliar it is hard to know how seriously to take what they say. The rest of the application matters much more, and the letters are sort of an extra check.

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