Why Do Letters of Recommendation Matter?
Letters of recommendation are a crucial aspect of your application to graduate school. Your test scores, transcripts and personal statement are also incredibly important, but stellar letters of recommendation can help make up for any potential shortcomings in those three categories. A well-written letter of recommendation should provide admissions committees with details that can’t be found elsewhere in your application. A good recommendation letter will be a personal and comprehensive discussion of your personal characteristics, achievements and work as well as your academic history. Your recommender should be able to compose all of this and demonstrate why you would be a perfect candidate for the programs you’ve applied to.
Who You Should Ask
Most graduate programs request anywhere from one to three letters of recommendation. Selecting people to compose these letters appears to be a step in which most students struggle. Asking the right people is vital as they’re basically vouching for you. Employers or supervisors, faculty members and administrators are all individuals you should consider. As a general rule, you should have known your potential recommender for at least six to 12 months prior to asking them to write a letter on your behalf. Your recommender(s) should:
- Know you well
- Be aware of your work
- Have known you long enough to write strongly about you
- Hold you in high regard
- Be able to speak positively about your work
- Know where you’re applying
- Know your educational and career aspirations
- Be able to write an outstanding letter
Keep in mind that it’s difficult to find a single person who can check off everything on that list. This is why it’s helpful to think about asking a set of people who can write letters that will demonstrate the range of your expertise and abilities. Ideally, these letters of recommendation will integrate your academic skills and accomplishments as well as your work background.
How to Ask
Compile a list of professors and supervisors who you believe will be your best supporters. After you’ve honed your list, reach out with an email to schedule an in-person meeting. This approach is important as cornering faculty in the hallway before or after class generally doesn’t go over very well.
So, send an email explaining that you’d like to discuss your plans to attend graduate school in person. In the intervening time between scheduling the appointment and attending it you should prepare to answer questions about your academic and professional interests as well as your reasons for attending graduate school. During the meeting, be sure to ask the individual if they feel they know you well enough to be comfortable writing a personal and meaningful letter of recommendation. Focus on their overall reaction to this, if they seem uncomfortable or reluctant, thank them for taking the time to speak with you and ask another potential recommender on your list.
When to Ask
While faculty and supervisors are usually happy to write a letter of recommendation, it’s good to keep in mind that these individuals have other activities and lives of their own. University faculty tend to be busier at the end of the term, so it may work in your favor to make your request earlier in the semester.
A frequent mistake some students make is requesting a letter too close to the admissions deadline. Be considerate of your recommendation letter writers’ time and meet with them at least two months in advance of the deadline, even if you haven’t compiled all of your application materials or narrowed down your final list of programs.
Information You Should Provide
One of the best ways to ensure that your letters of recommendation are great is to give your writers all the details they may need. You cannot expect them to remember everything about you. While they may recall that you frequently participated in class discussions and wrote well, they may not recall how many of their classes you took, and they may have no idea what your extracurricular hobbies are. To assist them, provide as much of this information as you can:
- 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 may also be useful to highlight information that you would like your recommender to emphasize, whether it’s your research or how your participation in class really helped to further the discussions. Be sure to give them a copy of the recommendation forms and a list of the due dates for each program you’re applying to.
Deciding to Keep the Letter Confidential or Not
Recommendation forms provided by graduate programs ask you whether or not you’d like to waive your right to read your recommendation letters. As you consider your options, keep in mind that most programs favor confidential letters. Admissions officials feel that confidential letters carry more power and exhibit more faith from the applicant. Furthermore, some faculty members may decline to write a letter unless it is kept confidential. But other faculty members may be willing to present you with a separate personal copy, even if they submit it to the graduate program confidentially.
Follow-Ups and Thank Yous
As you get closer to the deadline, follow up with your recommenders and remind them of the schedule. A check-in should not be the same thing as nagging, so be careful to toe the line. You can also follow up with the graduate program admissions advisors to see if they’ve received all of your application materials. Be sure to give a thank-you note (handwritten is your best bet) to your recommender once you know that they have submitted a letter on your behalf.
Getting letters of recommendation may seem like an intimidating task, but it can truly strengthen your overall application. By following these steps, you should be able to acquire recommendations that will express your individual strengths and set you apart from the competition.