You will hear it time and again that “lukewarm” letters can be a kiss of death for a graduate school application. The strongest letters come from recommenders familiar with you, and just like any relationship, this takes time and effort. Following are some ways to ensure that you have reliable recommenders who can truly speak to your character, abilities, and potential.
1. Identify credible recommenders
Most programs require two to three letters of recommendation. Professors from whom you have taken classes or worked with in a research or fieldwork setting are not only familiar with your academic skills, but also anticipate that they will be writing recommendations for strong students. Professionals in your field of interest are also options as potential recommenders, but just be sure that they have achieved the level of degree for which you are applying or higher, as they will need to be able to speak to your ability to perform well in a graduate program.
2. Prove yourself worthy of recommendation
Approach professors from whom you have earned high marks (A’s or high B’s). Because performance on tests or discussions in class may not be enough to make you memorable to an instructor, consider professors you have taken more than one class or those who are familiar with your other accomplishments (e.g., through research work, campus activities, etc.) Work or internship supervisors should be able to speak to your potential in the field.
3. Develop a professional & personal relationship
Most professors have set office hours or make appointments to meet with students. Use this time to review missed exam questions, get critiques on writing assignments, or have one-on-one discussions about course material that interests you. Ask about research and teaching assistantships, as well as career advice. Familiarity with you as an individual and true belief in your potential will shine through in letters of recommendation.
4. Respectfully Request your Recommendations
Once you have identified the programs to which you will apply, ask to meet with your preferred recommenders in person to discuss your plans. Even if you are certain that you have earned a recommendation, still remember to ask politely if they would be willing to write a “STRONG” letter of recommendation with the possibility of hearing a “no.”
Once the writer agrees, and you have begun applying to programs, be sure to give your recommenders at least 3 weeks to write their letters.
A Few Final Notes on Letters of Recommendation
- If you plan to take time off from academia before applying to graduate school, discuss this with potential recommenders and ask for general letters to keep on file. Keep in contact with the recommender so that you can easily ask for program-specific letters later.
- Keep the letters confidential between the recommender and admissions board. Be confident that you have demonstrated your abilities and that your letter writers have faith in you. If you choose not to waive your right, the professor may not feel comfortable writing a letter on your behalf. In addition, graduate committees generally do not apply as much weight to letters written on your behalf that you have read. Although always preferred, waiving your right to see your letter may be a requirement for some programs or recommenders.
- Be sure to send a hand-written thank you note to your recommenders, and let them know when you receive acceptances or make your final decision on a graduate program.