Letters of Recommendation

Most graduate schools require some form of recommendation from faculty or other individuals who know the student well enough to be able to write on his or her behalf. Many graduate schools use a form that the student must fill out with pertinent information about the student at the top of the form, which is then given to a faculty member to complete and mail. This is a critical part of the application process and should be taken very seriously. Unfortunately, many students simply walk into a faculty member’s office to ask for a recommendation, hand this individual an improperly completed or uncompleted form, provide no other information, and then expect a favorable outcome.

The result of this approach can be disastrous because the letter that is sent may lack detail, be lukewarm in praise, and generally imply that the faculty member is not interested in the student or does not really believe in the student’s abilities. As a worst case scenario, the faculty member may not even send the letter because the student has failed to properly complete the necessary paperwork.

Therefore you should consider the following:

  • Most faculty have hundreds of students and may only get to know a student well if the student takes the initiative to open communication. Ideally, students should identify faculty with similar interests to their own early on in their studies as undergraduates and begin cultivating professional relationships with these faculty members as mentors. Visiting faculty members during office hours, asking questions in class, volunteering to participate in research projects or other academic exercises are all ways to get to know a faculty member well and to establish yourself as a serious and credible student. When the day comes for you to ask this person for a recommendation, it will be gladly offered. Having a long standing relationship with a faculty mentor also gives that person the opportunity to include important personal information about you that will make your letters stand out from those of other applicants.
  • Even if you feel that you know a faculty member well, you should provide that individual with as much information about yourself as you can, in writing. Do not expect the faculty member to keep track of all your awards, outside activities, volunteer work, or other achievements that are important to note in a letter of recommendation. This information needs to be well organized and concise so that it is easy for the person writing the recommendation to go down a list of achievements and accomplishments while composing the letter. You need to include information such as your GPA, GRE score (it should be available if you took it in your junior year), and other statistical information such as how many times or the dates when you were on the Dean’s or President’s List, and so forth. If you are working on, or have completed a letter of intent or personal statement, include that as well. Most importantly, think about what YOU would like to see in a letter written on your behalf and be certain that you provide that information to the person writing the letter.
  • Although seemingly trivial, properly packaging the materials for the tasks you need the faculty member to perform is another critical aspect to a successful graduate school application process. Faculty are very busy, and are continually asked to write letters for students. If the materials are in disarray, incomplete, or difficult to handle, your materials are likely to be put aside to be done in haste at the last moment, or worse, not sent at all.

Therefore, you should:

  • Make certain that all of the necessary forms are properly completed by YOU before giving them to the faculty member who will recommend you.
  • Most forms ask you to check a box stating either that “you do” or “do not waive” your rights to review your file. ALWAYS check the box indicating that you do waive your rights to review. To do so otherwise indicates that you have not established a strong relationship with your letter writer. It also suggests that letter writers will be less candid because of the possibility that you may review their letters.
  • Take the time to type out a list of instructions for the recommender telling her/him what the procedures are that must be followed for each application you have included and a list of the materials you are providing. Give deadlines in bold for each application and clearly indicate whether the application is to be mailed directly to the graduate school by the faculty member, or returned to you to include in an application packet. All letters that are returned to you for inclusion in a packet should be signed across the flap by the recommender whether requested or not in the application instructions.
  • Provide stamped envelopes addressed to the appropriate graduate schools and clip these to the materials that need to be completed by the recommender for that school. Faculty truly appreciate this small act of thoughtfulness and it also may help speed up the process. Most students apply to more than one school, so be certain that you make it easy for the recommender to determine what materials need to go where.
  • Place all of the above in a large manila envelope addressed to the recommender. Write your name and a contact number or email address on the outside of the envelope so that if the recommender has any questions she/he can contact you easily and immediately.
  • Tell the recommender that you will check back in a week to see if any additional information is needed. Remember that it is YOUR responsibility to make certain that the letter has been sent off in a timely manner. And by the way, if you ask for a recommendation three days before it is due, expect a less than enthusiastic response!