“Every part of a graduate school application is important,” says Senior Consultant Heather MacNeill. That said, she feels that letters of recommendation are one application component that many applicants should pay more attention to.

“It’s your ability to distinguish yourself in your essays and letters of recommendation that will have the biggest impact on your application,” notes Heather. Your letters of recommendation are especially important in allowing the admissions committee to evaluate your credentials and potential. That’s why it’s especially important to choose the right recommenders.

How do you choose the right people for this task? “It is best to ask people who have a strong understanding of you and who are familiar with you and your academic potential,” says Heather. Given the importance that grad schools place on applicants’ academic potential, it is always advisable to have at least one former professor writing a letter on your behalf.

If you have professional work experience that is related to your field of interest, another option is to have a former employer or supervisor write a letter on your behalf. Admissions committees almost always look favorably on applicants who have work experience in their chosen discipline. However, a letter from an employer or supervisor should have a different focus than a letter from a professor would. “Committees are looking for examples of experience that have helped applicants gain insight into what it would be like to work in their chosen field, and how those experiences have impacted the applicant’s decisions,” says Heather.

Once you have chosen the right recommenders, you need to give each of them enough lead time to generate a strong letter for you. For helpful tips on how to organize your communication with your recommenders, see “A Little Consideration Goes a Long Way with LORs.”

– Heather gained extensive graduate admissions experience during her former service as Assistant Director of Graduate Admission at Pacific University. She also worked in graduate admissions for the Oregon Graduate Institute at the Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU).

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