A well written recommendation letter provides admissions committees with information that isn't found elsewhere in the application. A recommendation letter is a detailed discussion, from a faculty member, of the personal qualities, accomplishments, and experiences that make you unique and perfect for the programs to which you've applied. A helpful letter of recommendation provides insights that cannot be gleaned by simply reviewing an applicant's transcript or standardized test scores.
Who To Ask?
Most graduate programs require two or more recommendation letters. Most students find choosing professionals to approach for letters difficult. Consider faculty members, administrators, internship/co-operative education supervisors, and employers. The people you ask to write your recommendation letters should
- know you well
- know you long enough to write with authority
- know your work
- describe your work positively
- have a high opinion of you
- know where you are applying
- know your educational and career goals
- be able to favorably compare you with your peers
- be well known
- be able to write a good letter
There are good and bad ways of approaching faculty. For example, time your request well: don't ask in the hall or immediately before or after class. Request an appointment, explaining that you'd like to discuss your plans for graduate school. Save the official asking and explaining for that meeting. Also be aware of common mistakes students make when requesting recommendation letters, such as asking too close to the admissions deadline. Specifically ask the professor if he or she knows you well enough to write a meaningful and helpful recommendation letter. Pay attention to their demeanor. If you sense reluctance, thank them and ask someone else. Remember that it is best to ask early in the semester. As the end of the semester approaches, faculty may hesitate because of time restraints.
The best thing that you can do to ensure that your recommendation letters cover all the bases is to provide your referees with all the necessary information. Don't assume that they will remember anything about you. (I know, you're quite memorable, but think about what it must be like to have 150 or more students each semester!)
Make an appointment to speak with your letter writers. Give your letter writers plenty of time (three to four weeks at minimum). Provide a file with all of your background information:
- resume or vita
- admissions essays
- courses you've taken with them
- research experiences
- internship and other applied experiences
- honor societies to which you belong
- awards you've won
- work experience
- professional goals
- due date for the application
- copy of the application recommendation forms (if provided by the institution to which you're applying)
The recommendation forms supplied by graduate programs require you to decide whether to waive or retain your rights to see your recommendation letters. As you decide whether to retain your rights, remember that confidential recommendation letters tend to carry more weight with admissions committees. In addition, many faculty will not write a recommendation letter unless it is confidential. Other faculty may provide you with a copy of each letter, even if it is confidential. If you are unsure of what to decide, discuss it with your referee.
As the application deadline approaches, check back with your referees to ensure that the recommendation letters were sent on time (but don't nag!). Contacting the graduate programs to inquire whether your materials were received is also appropriate. Regardless of the outcome of your application, be sure to send a thank you note once you have determined that faculty have submitted their letters.