When browsing their web sites, I noticed that apart from those listed academic requirements by different universities, they all require at least two reference letters from applicants, but they did not officially state that who should write those recommendation letters.
Although I have collected several recommendation letters from my former teachers, I found it was quite hard to reach my former teachers whom I had not contacted for many years.
It almost took me two months from the day I sent out my first email to the day I got enough recommendation letters from my former teachers.
It has been puzzling me why the recommendation letters should be written by school lecturers or professors.
The people who know you best are business partners, your close friends, family members like your parents, siblings, why they are not qualified to write the recommendation letters for me?

  • Because it's a test on how determined you are in getting admitted. Someone who just get a letter from his/her friends look lazy to me
    – gerrytan
    Commented Jan 20, 2015 at 2:36
  • 1
    The title of this question is a little misleading. Why shouldn't friends and family write a recommendation letter? In a word, bias. But why can't supervisors or co-workers or civic leaders write a letter? That's a more interesting question, I think.
    – J.R.
    Commented Jan 20, 2015 at 10:42
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    @JR that's a different question. If you want to ask about that, go ahead and ask in a new post.
    – ff524
    Commented Jan 20, 2015 at 11:23

3 Answers 3


I myself applied to graduate school quite a few years after getting my B.S. It was not easy to get recommendations from faculty who had taught me, as they had mostly retired and some had in fact died over the years. I did get one academic recommendation, but the professor admitted to me that he did not remember me and had to write his letter more or less based only on my transcript.

In my opinion, a good admissions committee should realize that situations like these occur, and be flexible about what sorts of letters they require. (I was fortunate that the admissions committee where I was applying was flexible and I did get admitted.)

That said, I would consider a lack of academic recommendations for someone who has recently been in school to be a red flag. Someone who is applying to grad school should have been a good enough student as an undergrad to have made a positive impression on at least a couple of professors. Unless you have the excuse of having been away from academia for a number of years, you should definitely have academic references.

  1. Because they cannot be objective.
  2. Because they do not have firsthand knowledge of your academic abilities.
  3. Because they do not have the background necessary to compare you to other graduate school applicants.

Also see Kisses of Death in the Graduate School Application Process, page 2, "Harmful letters of recommendation," subsection "Inappropriate sources," and Protocol for writing a recommendation letter for someone you only know on a personal basis.

  • 3
    4. Because how many friends or family do you know that would write a totally honest letter (or refuse to write you one if it wouldn't be a good one)?
    – Moriarty
    Commented Jan 19, 2015 at 14:24
  • Does those rules apply to all graduate programms, ff524?
    – kitty
    Commented Jan 19, 2015 at 14:36
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    @kitty Yes. Unless the application explicitly says they want a character reference, it is implied that they are looking for an academic reference.
    – ff524
    Commented Jan 19, 2015 at 14:37
  • Thank you, ff524! I see one of the universities states that they accept professional recommendation and academic recommendation. What exactly is a professional recommendation?
    – kitty
    Commented Jan 19, 2015 at 14:40
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    @kitty A professional reference is one from somewhere you have worked. Generally a boss or supervisor. Ideally the job will have been connected to or involved in research, and the recommender will be an active researcher who has a relevant PhD. You should be careful with these, a recommendation is very different in the professional vs. academic realm. Make sure that any professional recommenders understand the academic culture.
    – Roger Fan
    Commented Jan 19, 2015 at 15:22

one of the links referenced above by @ff524 was actually asked by myself. The two main reasons are the following:

  1. Lack of objectivity / inherent bias in favor of applicant
  2. Lack of knowledge of academic discipline where candidate wants to apply.

The dilemma I faced that led me to asking the question, I was able to solve by brainstorming with my friend for other more appropriate resources to aid her. Even if the candidate is poorly qualified for the program which he or she has chosen to apply for, very few family / close friends would be willing to disclose this fact because as family, they have an inherent interest in seeing a relative succeed.

A major part of a recommendation is to assess the professional characteristics and prerequisite knowledge an applicant needs to have to be successful in the program, knowledge that family and close friends are unlikely to accurately have and objectively evaluate.


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