Letters of Recommendation and Gap Years

Letters of recommendation are an important component of any graduate school application. For PhD and academic master’s programs, they provide evidence of your aptitude for research from an authority in the field. For law or medical school, they can contextualize your academic performance or speak to your non-academic traits such as reliance or teamwork. For professional degrees, such as MBA or MPH, they can provide insight into your leadership skills and engagement in the professional field in which you hope to advance. Letters of recommendation undoubtedly play an important role in admissions, and the anxiety surrounding them is understandable. Applicants who are planning to or already have taken time between undergraduate and grad school face additional concerns, especially as their time since undergraduate lengthens. Below are the questions we commonly receive from undergraduates planning to apply to graduate school eventually and alums who are currently applying after time away from school.

  • Do I need to ask someone from my undergraduate program? It depends. Academic master’s and PhD programs will want to see letters from professors who taught you in the discipline you are interested in and/or who supervised your academic research—this means going back to professors from undergraduate is inevitable and desirable. If you have been out of school for a long time, or you are applying in a discipline you did not study in college, you might benefit from speaking with an advisor in our office about your best strategy. For more professionally focused graduate degrees, such as an MPH program, letters from supervisor from your job(s) might suffice. Even for those programs, however, you could benefit from a letter from someone who taught in a undergraduate course related to your field.
  • Will my undergraduate professors remember me? This is a common worry that is largely unfounded, especially if you had a close relationship with the letter writer or the class you took was small and discussion-based. If you were a candidate for a strong letter of recommendation during your senior year, you will still be one one or two or even five years out. If you are still an undergraduate planning to go to graduate school eventually, identify potential letter writers now and have informal conversations with them about your plans before you leave campus. Ask them if they would be willing to write in the future and save any relevant work you did in their class to provide them when you reach out later to ask for the letter formally and officially down the road.
  • Will my letters be strong? Applicants often have a skewed understanding of the type of relationship you need to have with someone for a good letter of recommendation. An academic letter, for example, only needs to speak to your performance in the class, and that has not changed since graduation. Don’t be afraid to reach out to potential letter writers and discuss your motivations for graduate school and experiences since graduation. This conversation can do a lot to quell your fears as well as give you good advice about your plans and application. There is no harm in asking for a letter, especially if you are honest with your concerns. If a professor thinks he or she cannot write you a strong letter or don’t know you well enough, they will decline if you give them an opportunity to.

In sum, if your plans involve time between undergraduate and graduate school—and the majority of students from Penn take some time before applying to graduate school—don’t let worries about letters of recommendation prevent you from pursing the path that makes the most sense for your professional and academic goals.

By Caroline Wilky
Caroline Wilky Associate Director, Graduate School Advising