Grad School Without Letters Of Recommendation: It Can Be Done!
How can you get into grad school without letters of recommendation? It isn’t the most straightforward route, but it can be done. The first thing you need to realize is that if you want to get a doctorate, you will need to acquire said letters– but don’t panic, there are a lot of ways you can do this.
If you’re aiming for a standard public/state university, liberal arts college, or private university– they will all require 2-4 letters of recommendation for a doctoral program. As the quality of the program increases, so does the expected quality of the recommendations.
That said, there are many master’s degree programs that will allow you into grad school without letters of recommendation. This is particularly true at a lot of state universities, and some programs will allow undergraduate alumni to enroll in their master’s degree program with little effort. Some may scoff at this proposal, but it is actually a pretty good plan of attack for most people, and we’ll give you five reasons why.
(1) An undergraduate degree is long, and with a full time load it is inevitable that you have a few (or a lot) of classes where you got a lower grade than you would have liked. These classes drag your GPA down, which acts as a cut off number for most PhD programs. If you enroll in a master’s program, you’ll be able show the admissions committees that, while you may not have been completely serious at 18 years old, you’re completely dedicated to your education now. You always want to be on an upward trajectory, improving each step of the way. In this way a master’s degree can help get you into a much better PhD program down the line, because the “main” GPA they’ll care about is the most recent. Throughout your courses you’ll want to cultivate relationships with your professors and let them know from the very start that you plan to ask them for a letter of recommendation. This will grab their attention and ensure they remember you and your work from Day 1. Letting a course professor know that you’re angling for a letter of recommendation right away is critical because you won’t have much time to develop a relationship with them or many assignments to prove yourself. Discussing a potential letter of recommendation early on is also a great way to get involved in potential research opportunities, and it usually helps keep students motivated throughout the class. When you know the professor is paying special attention to your work, you tend to put more effort in.
(2) Getting a master’s before a PhD is that it’ll give you more time to do academic research. While a master’s degree is primarily a taught degree, there are usually more opportunities for you to do research with faculty than at the undergraduate level. This access to faculty and research is one of the best ways to get a really great letter of recommendation for a doctoral program after your graduate. The faculty will be able to speak to your actual research experience and will surely know you better than most undergraduate students. Because you’ll be working with the point of getting a good letter of recommendation, you can ensure you play your cards right from the beginning.
(3) Some students may groan that if you get a master’s, you’ll have to retake all your coursework should you be accepted to a PhD program later on. While it’s true that you’ll probably have to take some additional classes, most programs allow you to transfer credits from your previous master’s degree. That means that, in addition to having a master’s degree from University X, you get to opt out of 20-50% of the coursework required for the PhD program at University Y. The other bonus is that you will have already taken similar courses in the master’s when you didn’t have much research obligation. When you enter your PhD, classes will be a breeze and you’ll be able to focus more on getting publications than on cramming for your midterms.
(4) A master’s degree gives you a taste of what a PhD will be like–what’s expected of you and what job opportunities are out there. This is a great way to guarantee yourself a boost in salary should you decide not to continue, but also provide excellent preparation if you continue with a PhD. It is very common these days for students to enter a doctoral program with one or even two master’s degrees from other subjects as they narrowed in on what they want to study. For example, it isn’t uncommon to see an applicant with a bachelor of science degree in biology who then got a master’s in computer science, before ending up in a computational biology PhD program. Likewise we’ve seen PhD students at schools like Harvard or Princeton who started out at a small state school, but got two master’s degrees after the fact and did very well, which enabled them to get great letters of recommendation and a ton of research experience.
(5) If you enjoy your master’s program and do very well, it’s likely you’ll be accepted to their PhD program. The admissions committee and faculty will already know you, and they’ve already put effort into your professional development. In this way a master’s degree acts as a great stepping stone into the PhD program.
The moral is that you can get into a master’s program without letters of recommendation and consequently improve your chances of being accepted to a PhD program by acquiring letters of recommendation, expanding your research experience, increasing your GPA, and giving you a focused idea of what you want to research (which translates into a better statement of purpose). If you’re short on recommendation letters, it’s likely that you’re short on some other aspects of your application as well. Instead of spending hundreds of dollars on applications, it might be better to wait until after you’ve obtained a master’s degree to apply to PhD programs.
Now what if, for whatever reason, you absolutely do not want to wait–perhaps you’re already deep in student loan debt and can’t find a financed master’s, or maybe you’re an older applicant who has been in the job market for awhile and don’t have the time to invest in a master’s degree first. What should you do if you’re short one or two letters of recommendation, or worse, don’t have any letters but still want to attend a PhD program this year?
How to get letters of recommendation quickly
So you want to go to a major university but are short a letter or two of recommendation? Well you’re not totally out of luck. There are ways to get letters of recommendation for graduate school in a short amount of time, but keep in mind that they probably won’t be as good as what you could get if you waited and got more research experience.
(1) Ask professors you’ve taken classes with, even if you don’t know them well (or at all). In our Letters of Recommendation Guide we outline the proper way to approach someone for a letter. Because our approach requires you to do a lot of the grunt work before approaching the professor, this method can work really well even if you don’t know the professor personally. So the first resource you should exhaust is any/all professors you took courses with (and did well). Professors know that it can sometimes be a stretch to find recommendations, as it’s rare to work with more than one or two professors in undergraduate. If you follow our letter of recommendation request guide you’re much more likely to not only get a letter, but to get a legitimately good letter of recommendation. Not all professors will be comfortable with this, but if you went to a larger state school, you have a really good chance. The classes tend to be large, and it’s unlikely you’d be penalized because the professor doesn’t remember you from a class of 200 students. Just make sure you got a great grade in the class. Your request email should include everything in our guide as well as specific details about why you liked the course. Here is an example of a good request email:
Greetings Professor [LAST NAME],
My name is [FULL NAME]. I was in your [YEAR] [SEMESTER] [COURSE NUMBER and TITLE] class. I received an A. I really enjoyed how interactive the lectures were. A lot of the problem solving techniques such as your [DEMONSTRATION/SPECIFIC DETAIL] stayed with me, and it was one of the only classes I remember vividly because of how engaged I felt. The class project was the first opportunity I had to work on [SPECIFIC MATERIAL] and actually spawned my interest in pursuing more education in the field. To that end, I’ll be applying to graduate programs for the [ACADEMIC YEAR] application season. I already have letters of recommendation from my most recent research advisors. However, I feel it would be a good idea to have a letter from someone who can speak to my coursework performance. Because your class was my favorite, it felt appropriate to ask you to write one of my letters. I realize it has been awhile since I took your class, so I’ve attached a copy of my resume and coursework details. If you don’t feel comfortable writing one, I completely understand, but hope you’ll consider it–as your course was a deciding factor in me pursuing a PhD.
Thank you, I realize you’re very busy and appreciate your time.
You can scare up more letters of recommendation than you might think this way, often from professors you hadn’t even considered asking because you never even met formally. Just keep in mind how important it is to follow our letter of recommendation guide and itemize your achievements for them and before you ask. Letters of recommendation are time consuming and tedious to write, you’re vastly more likely to get one if you’ve done 80% of the work for them.
If you’re angling for class work based recommendations– do not pick recommenders based on their departmental prestige! It is tempting to cull a list of professors based on how well known they are in the field, or if they’re a relative big shot in your department. This is a bad call for many reasons. First, they’re probably very busy (and fairly arrogant)–meaning they turn down a higher percentage of requested recommendations than an average professor. Second, they’re likely asked for recommendations a lot more than most professors, this can sometimes translate into them writing letters that aren’t glowing, to say the least. Lastly, it is unlikely that anyone outside your program has heard of them, even if they’re well known at your university. Students routinely overestimate the prestige their professors hold, naively thinking that just because a professor got their PhD from Princeton, it will somehow carry sway with said admissions board. This is simply not the case. Keep in mind that a first round admissions committee is often made up of administrators who won’t know anything about your field. The most important thing to work on is getting a detailed, long, and glowing recommendation–regardless of who it is from in the department. Every year students fall victim to thinking that a so-so letter from a Dean or Department Chair carries more weight than a great letter from junior faculty–don’t let that happen to you.
(2) Find work colleagues/superiors that can speak to skills most pertinent to your intended field. Lets say you are planning on applying to a PhD program, but have spent the last three years working at a tech startup. The trick in this situation is to be incredibly structured when acquiring a work letter of recommendation. Most programs want three letters from professors, but that isn’t always possible (and for some programs, such as business administration, economics, or health related fields, it can be a good thing to include work letters). Before approaching anyone make a list of everything you did at your job. Did you do trainings? Was organizing a lot of data a part of the job? Did you consistently work weekends? Were you in charge of using statistical techniques to elucidate important factors? Then find the link between what you did and what you will be doing in grad school. Examples:
Training = Teaching
Long Hours = Work Ethic
Computer Skills = Analytical/Programming Skills
Organization = Capable of Multitasking
Tedious/Repetitive Responsibilities = Fortitude
Once you have this list of transferable skills, figure out who among your colleagues has the most experience with you in the highest impact areas [e.g. If you’re applying for a PhD in education for example, have someone who can speak to your skills conducting trainings]. Follow the standard techniques outlined in our guide for your work references (even if you work in the same office!). You want them to have a really good idea of what you expect from them. It’s important you get the recommendation YOU know you need, and not the one they think you need. Everyone’s background is different and it’s unlikely that they’ll know what professors are looking for, so expecting a great letter is unfair if you aren’t willing to outline your expectations to them. It’s a good idea to ask if you can proofread the letter beforehand, checking for typos and ensuring it provides enough detail.
Lastly: no matter what your circumstances, it is a very bad idea to have more than one letter come from work experience (unless the job is at a research institute, such as a national lab, university, or hospital). Admissions committees want letters from faculty, so do your best to scrounge up at least two.
(3) Take A Class. If you have a few months before applications are due, you still have time to take a class in the summer or fall semester at a nearby state university. It won’t cost you the full tuition required of a master’s degree, and you can usually take a few classes as a non-degree candidate in the subject you intend to study. Approach the professor beforehand, and be honest about your situation. Tell them you’re willing to work hard in the class and want the opportunity to show them that you’re a good candidate. This can be a fantastic option, particularly if you’ve already taken the GRE and have less on your plate during the application period. It also allows you to refresh your memory on critical material and get back into the academic groove before a rigorous program.
If none of these seem like viable options to get into grad school without letters of recommendation, it’s probably best to postpone applying for another year. If you simply can’t afford the time or money to get a master’s degree, you can still volunteer to work part time with a professor and get the connections you’ll need for a good letter.
Did you find getting into grad school without letters of recommendation useful? Then be sure and check out some of our other articles!