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Graduate School Recommendation Letters: What You Need to Know

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Recommendation letters are a critical part of the graduate school application. If you are planning on applying to grad school, think about who you will ask for letters of recommendation well before you begin preparing your graduate school application. Make contact with professors during the first two years of college and develop relationships as you will rely on them to write recommendation letters that will land you a spot in the graduate program of your choice. Every graduate program requires applicants to submit recommendation letters. Don't underestimate the importance of these letters. While your transcript, standardized test scores, and admissions essay are vital components to your graduate school application, an excellent recommendation letter can make up for weaknesses in any of these areas.

Why do Graduate School Applications Require Recommendation Letters?
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. Moreover a recommendation can validate a candidate's admissions essay.

Who To Ask?
Most graduate programs require at least two, more commonly three, recommendation letters. Most students find choosing professionals to write recommendations 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

Keep in mind that no one person will satisfy all of these criteria. Aim for a set of recommendation letters that cover the range of your skills. Ideally, letters should cover your academic and scholastic skills, research abilities and experiences, and applied experiences (e.g., co-operative education, internships, related work experience). For example, a student who is applying to an MSW program or a program in clinical psychology might include recommendations from faculty who can attest to their research skills as well as recommendation letters from faculty or supervisors who can speak to their clinical and applies skills and potential.

How to Ask for a Recommendation Letter
There are good and bad ways of approaching faculty to ask for a letter of recommendation. For example, time your request well: don't corner professors in the hallway or immediately before or after class. Request an appointment, explaining that you'd like to discuss your plans for graduate school. Save the official request and explanation for that meeting. 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. Also be aware of common mistakes students make when requesting recommendation letters, such as asking too close to the admissions deadline. Ask at least a month ahead of time, even if you don't have your application materials composed or your final list of programs chosen.

Provide Information
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 everything about you. For example, I might remember that a student is exceptional and an excellent participant in class but I may not remember all of the details when I sit down to write, such as how many classes the student took with me and extracurricular interests (such as being active in the psychology honors society, for example).  Provide a file with all of your background information:

Confidentiality
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 remind professors of the deadline (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.

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