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Getting Good Letters of Recommendation: Experiences that Matter

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What are the experiences that will help you to earn excellent letters of recommendation from faculty?

Research Experiences
Generally speaking, research is the academic experience most highly valued by graduate admissions committees. Applicants who have research experience often are viewed as graduate school material because, at least in doctoral programs, research is at the heart of graduate school. Any old research experience, however, will not do. Your research experience must supervised, documented, and evaluated highly by a faculty member in your department who, in turn, writes a letter of recommendation on your behalf as part of your graduate school application.

Understand the benefits of getting involved in research and demonstrate an honest interest. This means that you should seek experiences as a research assistant (even if they are unpaid!) and make research contacts with faculty.

Applied Experiences
Real world experiences are especially important for applied fields such as education and social work. Faculty who supervise your internships and other applied experiences will play a large role in graduate school admissions.

  • Document your applied experiences.
  • Seek additional contact with supervisors.
  • Talk with faculty about your experiences. Seek constructive criticism on your performance.
  • Be open to criticism.
  • Seek to improve
As with research experiences, keep a record of your work and contact with faculty. Remember that your interactions at your internship site and with your supervisor are the basis for the evaluation that shapes your letter of recommendation.

Classroom Experiences
Interactions in the classroom are always important. They are the foundation of faculty-student relationships and can lead to research and applied experiences. Given that three letters are typically requested of graduate school applicants, at least one letter usually is from a faculty member whose contact with the student is primarily in class.

Make a good impression in the classroom. Be a good student: be on time, miss few classes, be prepared, submit work on time, ask intelligent questions, participate in class discussions, seek advice on scholarly matters, and visit office hours (but don’t dominate). Track your ideas and consider their research potential. Talk with faculty about their research, your ideas, and solicit input.

There is no simple shortcut to getting excellent letters of recommendation. It takes hard work – throughout the college years. Seek these experiences early on and keep the ultimate goal of developing quality relationships with faculty in mind in order to obtain letters of recommendation that will move your application to the top of the pile.

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