The letter of recommendation is the part of the graduate school application that students stress most over. As with all elements of the application process, your first step is to be sure that you understand what you’re asking for. Learn about letters of recommendation early, well before it is time to apply to graduate school.
What Is a Recommendation Letter?
A letter of recommendation is a letter written on your behalf, typically from an undergrad faculty member, that recommends you as a good candidate for graduate study. All graduate admissions committees require that letters of recommendation accompany students’ applications. Most require three. How do you do about getting a letter of recommendation, specifically a good letter of recommendation?
Prep Work: Develop Relationships with Faculty
Begin thinking about letters of recommendation as soon as you think you’d like to apply to graduate school because developing the relationships that are the foundation of good letters takes time. In all honesty, the best students seek to get to know professors and get involved regardless of whether they are interested in graduate study simply because it’s a good learning experience. Also, graduates will always need recommendations for jobs, even if they don’t go to graduate school. Seek experiences that will help you develop relationships with faculty that will get you excellent letters and help you learn about your field.
Choose Faculty to Write on Your Behalf
Carefully choose your letter writers, keeping in mind that admissions committees seek letters from specific types of professionals. Learn about what qualities to look for in referees and don’t fret if you’re a nontraditional student or one who seeks entry to graduate school several years after graduating from college.
How to Ask
Ask for letters appropriately. Be respectful and remember what not to do. Your professor does not have to write you a letter, so do not demand one. Demonstrate respect for your letter writer’s time by providing him or her with plenty of advance notice. At least a month is preferable (more is better). Less than two weeks is unacceptable (and may be met with a “No”). Provide referees with the info they need to write a stellar letter, including info about the programs, your interests, and goals.
Waive Your Rights to See the Letter
Most recommendation forms include a box to check and sign to indicate whether you waive or retain your rights to see the letter. Always waive your rights. Many referees will not write a non-confidential letter. Also, admissions committees will give letters more weight when they are confidential under the assumption that faculty will be more candid when the student cannot read the letter.
It’s OK to Follow-Up
Professors are busy. There are many classes, many students, many meetings, and many letters. Check in a week or two before its due to see if the recommendation has been sent or if they need anything else from you. Follow-up but don’t make a pest out of yourself. Check with the grad program and contact the prof again if it hasn’t been received. Give referees lots of time but also check in. Be friendly and don’t nag.
Thank your referees. Writing a letter of recommendation takes careful thought and hard work. Show that you appreciate it with a thank you note. Also, report back to your referees. Tell them about the status of your application and definitely tell them when you are accepted to graduate school. They’ll want to know, trust me!