How to Apply: Letters of Recommendation

Post by: Mikaela Allen, MTS 2019, HDS Office of Admissions Graduate Assistant

This article is part of our How to Apply series, which answers common questions about the application process and includes these articles:

How to Apply: Test Scores  

How to Apply: Statement of Purpose 

How to Apply: Reapplication 

How to Apply: Writing Sample 

How to Apply: Résumé 

This post was originally written in 2018 but has been updated to reflect accurate application information in October 2021.  


To provide additional insight into this section of the application, we’ve included a short video with some of our former Graduate Assistants. They share how they approached the letters of recommendation and what information from their application they provided to their recommenders. They also discuss how a prospective student whose been out of school for a while might approach the letters of recommendation.  


How many letters of recommendation are required?  

Three letters of recommendation are required for application to all of our degree programs. At least two of these letters should be solicited from college, university, or seminary professors who have taught you and are well-acquainted with your academic qualifications. MDiv applicants must have one letter that can speak to their ministerial capacity, whatever that may look like for their particular tradition or practice. 

What do you look for in a letter of recommendation? How can I ensure that my letters of recommendation reflect what you’re looking for?  

Letters of recommendation are some of the best sources of information our office receives about you as they allow us to hear how your mentors, supervisors, and professors view you and your abilities.  

Letters should address your intellectual abilities, personal qualities, and promise for graduate study in religion. They should also directly address your candidacy for admission to HDS.  

It is usually a good idea to start talking with potential recommenders at least two months in advance of the January deadline. They should be knowledgeable about the degree program you are applying to and why you have decided to apply to HDS, so we encourage you to have one or more conversations with them. We also recommend that you provide your recommenders with a copy of your résumé, statement of purpose, and a link to the program site so that they have all the information they need to write a tailored letter on your behalf. 

If there is an element of the application that you are concerned about, you could also have the recommender address that. For example, if you feel that your GPA does not reflect your true academic potential, your recommender can address this directly in their letter.  

I have been out of school for a while and am unable to provide an academic letter of recommendation. Will a professional recommendation work as a substitute? 

While it is ideal that you have at least one academic letter of recommendation, many of our students have been out of school and in professional fields for a number of years. In these cases, it is still advisable that you contact professors from either undergraduate or previous graduate degrees for a recommendation letter. However, we understand that obtaining an academic letter is not feasible for everyone, so it is important that you have conversations with your recommenders so that they can speak to the transferable skills you will carry with you throughout your graduate study. Professional recommenders should be able to address your professional and academic skills and the ways in which your professional experience supports your goals for graduate theological study. 

Would it be advantageous to have someone affiliated with HDS, like an alum I’ve met, write a letter of recommendation for me? What about asking my dean to write a letter for me?  

It is always better that you select recommenders who know you well and can speak to the overall quality of your character and academic preparation than to choose someone based on their prestige or connection with HDS. The letters of recommendation are one of the most important aspects of your application, so it is important that your recommenders can highlight your best qualities and provide us with additional information that will help us get to know you better.  

If you do have a strong relationship with an HDS alum or the dean of your school and feel that they can speak to your character and academic qualities, you may choose to ask them for a letter of recommendation. However, don’t feel that you need to seek out an alum or other professional merely for their status.  

Do you accept recommendation letters through Interfolio? What about over email? 

We do not accept recommendation letters through Interfolio or through email (in fact, we do not accept any application materials via email). You must enter the recommender’s information into the online application and then your recommender will receive an invite through the email you listed for them to upload their letter into the application. Recommenders must submit their letter electronically. They will first fill out a simple online form with a few brief questions, and then either copy and paste or upload their letter into the portal. 

Can I submit my application even though my recommenders haven’t submitted their letters yet? 

Yes! You can submit your application even if your recommenders haven’t submitted their letters yet. Once you submit, however, we recommend that you monitor your application checklist to make sure that all letters are submitted by the application deadline. 

However, please make sure to keep in contact with your recommenders throughout the application process and provide them with clear information about the application deadline.  

After submitting your application and in case of a serious situation, such as an illness, that has inhibited your recommender from uploading their letter, please contact our office at admissions@hds.harvard.edu. 

I submitted my application and all materials, but still have a red “x” next to a test score, recommendation, or transcript. Should I be worried? 

Great question! If you know that you have sent in all materials, please bear in mind that we must process a high volume of materials, which can take up to a week. It is important that you monitor your checklist to see if we have received and processed your materials. We cannot verify individual items on your checklist, so please do not email us right away if this is the case. If a significant amount of time has passed since you think we should have received your materials, usually about a week or so, please do contact us at admissions@hds.harvard.edu as it could mean that an error has occurred. 

Upon submitting your application, you may notice a red x at the top of the application checklist page next to the statement “all documents have been checked and verified by the Office of Admissions.” Our office must process and verify every single document submitted through the application, which can take around a month to complete. If we have any questions during our verification process, we will reach out to you directly. Otherwise, you do not need to worry 


We hope this information assists with your letters of recommendation. Please reach out to us if you have any additional questions as you complete the application for admission at admissions@hds.harvard.edu.  

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