Letters of Recommendation
One of the most important aspects of a graduate school application is the letter of recommendation. Depending on the graduate program, a single application may require up to four letters. Letters of recommendation should come mostly from professors who know you well. But how do you ask? Follow these basic guidelines to ensure the best recommendation letters you can get.
1. Start Early.
Most professors will write letters for many students each semester, so try to give them as much time as possible (ideally 6-8 weeks) before your applications are due. It is best to ask professors for letters in person. Try e-mailing or calling them to set up an appointment to discuss recommendation letters, then politely ask them for a letter at the appointment. Some professors may consider it rude to ask for a letter by e-mail, so be careful.
2. Ask the Appropriate Person(s).
Develop good relationships with your professors. Get to know three or four on a fairly close basis, as many graduate schools want three or four letters of reference. How do you choose which professors to ask? If a professor does not know your work well and writes a bland or lukewarm letter of support, their high-ranking status will not help you. You should ask professors who are familiar with your work and have been supportive of you throughout your academic career. These professors will be able to write a much more effective, personal and persuasive letter. “Big Names” are not the best recommenders, unless they know you well.
3. Be Organized.
Once a professor has agreed to write you a letter, provide him or her with all the necessary info, including: clear instructions and deadlines, necessary forms, your resume and any other info to help them write about your character, academic accomplishments, and potential for success in graduate school. Also provide info about the graduate programs you are applying to, so the professor can better tailor their letters to those particular programs. Lastly, be absolutely certain to provide all the envelopes and postage they need. Send each professor a thank you note—they’ve been generous with their time and efforts. You are asking the professor for a big favor—you should approach it as such!
4. Mix it Up.
While all of your letter writers don't have to be faculty members, it's a good idea to have the majority be professors. Feel free to mix up the types of professors. You might, for example, have an English professor write one of your letters simply because she or he can attest to your writing and research abilities, but most of your recommenders should be professors specializing in the field you seek to study in graduate school—people who know what graduate school is about and have some idea about what it takes to be successful there. Also, while it's not essential, try not to have all male or all female recommenders.
5. Keep in Touch.
Throughout your academic career you will need to ask for letters of recommendation. Therefore, you want to cultivate professional relationships with your primary letter writers. Let them know how your studies are progressing, what your new interests are, and what awards and honors you may have received. Professors have a vested interest in how their students fare. However, it is the student’s responsibility to keep his or her professors apprised of events.
6. Follow Non-verbal Cues.
It is very rare that someone will write you a bad letter—many professors will simply tell you that they don't think they can write you a good letter (or more likely, they don't have time, etc.). If a professor hints at the fact that they don't think they have much to say about you or that they may not have time, they might be trying to tell you that they don't have the very best impression of you. If you’re unsure, you may want to ask a professor directly, "Do you think you can write a positive letter for me?"