Why Do These Letters Matter?
Letters of recommendation are a vital part of your graduate school application. While things like your test scores, transcripts and personal statement are extremely important aspects of your application, excellent letters of recommendation can help to make up for potential weaknesses in those areas. A well-written recommendation letter should give admissions committees information that can’t be found anywhere else in the application. A good recommendation letter is a personal and detailed discussion about the personal attributes, accomplishments and work and academic experience. Your recommender should be able to compile all of this and make a case for why you would be a perfect fit for the programs you’ve applied to.
Who Should I Ask?
The majority of graduate programs require anywhere from one to three letters of recommendation. Choosing individuals to write these letters seems to be where most students struggle. It’s important that you ask the right people, they’re essentially vouching for you. You should consider faculty members, employers or supervisors and administrators you’ve become close with. As a rule of thumb, you should have known your recommender for at least six months to a year before asking them to write a letter for you.
Your recommender(s) should:
- Know you well
- Know of your work
- Know you long enough to write strongly about you
- Hold you in high esteem
- Be able to speak positively about your work
- Be aware of where you’re applying
- Know your educational and career aspirations
- Be able to write an excellent letter
Remember, it’s hard to find one person who can check off all these boxes. That’s why it’s important to consider asking a set of people who can write letters that speak to the range of your skills and accomplishments. In an ideal world, these letters will incorporate your academic skills and accomplishments, work experience and research abilities and experience. A student who is applying to a master’s insSocial work program may want to request a recommendation from a faculty member who can vouch for their research abilities as well as a letter from supervisors who can attest to their clinical skills.
How Do I Ask?
First, make a list of professors and supervisors who you think will be your best supporters. Once you’ve narrowed down your list, send them an email request to set up an in-person appointment. This is important, requesting the letter via email or cornering faculty in a hallway or before or after class are generally methods that don’t work well.
So, send an email to request an appointment and explain that you’d like to speak with them about your plans to attend graduate school. In the time between setting the appointment and actually attending it, you should prepare to answer questions about your interests and reasons for attending graduate school. During the meeting, ask the professor or supervisor if they feel they know you well enough to write a personal, meaningful and helpful letter of recommendation. It’s important to focus on their overall demeanor if they seem uncomfortable or reluctant to help, thank them for their time and ask someone else on your list.
When Do I Ask?
Faculty and supervisors are generally happy to write a letter of recommendation on your behalf, but it’s good to remember that they also have activities and lives of their own. Faculty tend to be busiest toward the end of the term, so it’s helpful to ask them to help you early in the semester before time constraints become heavier. A common mistake some students make is asking too close to the admissions deadline. Be considerate of the recommendation letter writer’s time and approach them at least two months ahead of time, even if you haven’t collected all of your application materials or made a final list of programs.
If you plan on taking time off before graduate school, don’t wait until you begin applying to ask for letters. Your professors may go on a sabbatical, or the memory of you may not be as clear by the time you request the letter. Before you graduate, you can ask your professor for a general letter of recommendation, then, when you’re ready to apply to graduate school, you can reach out to the professors again and ask them to update the letters with more specific details.
What Information Should I Provide?
The best way to be sure that your letters of recommendation are outstanding is to provide your writers with all the information they’ll need. It would be foolhardy to expect them to remember everything about you. They may remember that you participated in class and wrote well, but they may not remember how many classes you took with them, or even know what your extracurricular interests and activities are. To help them, you should provide as much of the following information as possible:
- Transcripts (note courses you’ve taken with them)
- Drafts of your personal statements
- Research experience
- Awards you’ve won
- Work experience
- Professional goals
- Any other information you feel is relevant
It can help if you note the information that you would like your recommender to emphasize in the letter, whether it’s your research, or how your contributions in class really elevated the discourse. You should also provide them with a copy of the recommendation forms and the due date for each of the programs you’re applying to.
Should I Keep the Letter Confidential or Not?
The recommendation forms given by graduate programs ask you to choose whether to waive or retain your right to read your recommendation letters. As you weigh your options, remember that graduate programs tend to prefer confidential letters. Admissions officials feel that confidential letters of recommendation carry more weight and show more confidence from the applicant. Additionally, some faculty may refuse to write the letter unless it is confidential. Though other faculty members may provide you with a personal copy of the recommendation letter, even if they submit it to the graduate program confidentially.
Check-Ins and Thank Yous
As the deadline draws nearer, check-in with your recommenders and remind them of the timeline. A check-in is not nagging, so toe the line carefully. You can also contact the graduate programs to ask if they’ve received all of your application materials. And no matter what the outcome of your application is, be sure to send a thank-you note (handwritten is best) once you’re sure that the recommender has submitted their letter on your behalf.
Obtaining letters of recommendation may seem like a daunting task, but it can truly bolster your overall application. By following these steps, you should be able to obtain recommendations that will speak to your unique qualifications and set you apart from the competition.