Graduate School Tip of the Month: Earning a Great Letter of Recommendation

We’ll send you an issue with many of our favorite recycled news stories in just a few short weeks once registration starts gearing up.  Here’s another oldie, but a goodie: How do you get good letters of recommendation?  We’ve broken this down based on where you are in the grad school process.  It’s never too early to start thinking about letters of recommendation!

Freshmen, Sophomores, and Juniors:

  • Maximize your effort and performance in your classes. Grades matter, and so do specific skills. Faculty members will be asked to rate your critical thinking skills, writing skills, oral communication skills, and so on.
  • Don’t count on grades alone. If you earn “As” in a faculty member’s classes, but he/she has never had an extended conversation with you or heard you express an opinion in class, the resulting letter may be relatively short and generic.
  • Participate in individualized instruction experiences. Professors will have more specific and detailed comments to make about your performance and potential if they have worked with you in a research or teaching assistantship, independent study, internship, or honors project.
  • Be aware of your classroom demeanor and what you communicate in your interactions with students and professors. Letter writers are often asked to fill out forms that rate such things as students’ maturity, initiative, interpersonal skills, ability to deal with stress, responsibility, time management, and emotional stability. Asking questions, being a leader in group work, submitting work on time, and attending department events communicate one set of messages. Texting during class, chronic lateness, repeated requests for extensions, and having difficulty negotiating relationships with group members communicate another.

Students Currently Applying to Graduate School:

  • Think about how you make the letter of recommendation request. Ask in person, and genuinely ask. Do not simply assume a professor will write a letter for you.
  • Give your potential recommender plenty of notice. Writing letters takes a great deal of time and effort, and you are not the only student asking for a letter. You should have all materials ready for the faculty member one month in advance, and you should think about the timing of your request. If you have an application due date of January 1st, December 1st may not be enough notice. Think about all of the things going on in December (end of classes, finals, commencement) – and how far in advance the letter would likely need to be mailed to arrive by January 1st (giving the professor far less than a month).
  • Be organized. Think about what you communicate if you do not provide the requested supporting materials to your professor, or if you have to make several return trips to the person’s office with bits and pieces of information. Then think about what you communicate by delivering a well-organized packet of information with neatly completed documents, addressed envelopes, and so on. This interaction is likely the last one you have with the faculty member before he/she writes the letter – make that most recent impression a favorable one!
  • Be careful when completing on-line applications that ask for a list of recommenders. More and more schools are using web-based letter of recommendation sites where faculty directly upload their letters, and once students enter the recommender’s name, an automated email request is sent to that individual. You do not want your faculty member receiving an email request for a letter before you have even asked if he/she would be willing to write for you.
  • Thank your letter writers, and let them know what happens. Professors want to know what happens in your graduate school search, so let them know where you are accepted and what school you decide to attend.

To learn more about letters of recommendation and the process of requesting one, refer to the Human Development website.