Most graduate schools require letters of recommendation. You need to think strategically about whom you choose to write these letters.
If you are applying to graduate school directly from college, or a few years out, your letters should most likely be from your previous professors. If you have work experience, you may submit a professional letter of recommendation along with one from an academic source. Especially important will be a letter from a boss who is active in the field your plan earn your graduate degree.
If you have been active in campus or community organizations, a letter from someone who can speak to your service, leadership, and commitment could be an excellent supplemental letter to your academic and professional letters.
Your third letter is most likely to be impressive to admissions officers if your first two recommendations aren’t quite adequate to substantiate a story theme that highlights your strengths, or possibly mitigate a weakness, if you have determined that you must address this in your application package.
Focus on Content, Not Status of Author
The best letters of recommendation are those that provide detailed examples of an applicant’s writing, critical reasoning, analytical, and research skills, and other tools, like creativity, inventiveness, and tenacity, which are necessary for success in graduate study.
Also, you will want your letters of recommendation to address how you regularly contributed to situations, such as classes or jobs. Did you regularly arrive prepared? Were you engaged and a regular contributor to class discussions or a creative problem solver at work? If so, you will want this information relayed to admissions officers via your letters of recommendation. Admissions committees are looking for students who are going to be engaged in the classroom and the graduate-school community, not passive observers who merely do their homework and show up to class every day.
The person who can write the most effective letter of recommendation is the person who best knows the applicant. That person may be the TA for a particular class as opposed to the professor. That person may be an office manager or legislative aide as opposed to the senator.
A common misunderstanding about letters of recommendation is thinking that the personal or professional status of a letter writer will make a difference with an admissions committee. Applicants will ask deans or high-profile faculty to write letters instead of asking the TA or the assistant professor, with whom they worked directly and is qualified to attest to the applicant’s strengths. What matters most to the admissions committee is the content and authenticity of the letter, so the people you ask should be among those who know you and your work.
Asking For Letters of Recommendation
It is important to be proactive about getting letters of recommendation. Applicants should set up a meeting – in person, if possible, or by phone – with the people they intend to ask for letters of recommendation. Applicants need to ask: Can you write a strong letter of recommendation for me? Do you have time to do it? How can I make it easier for you?
One other benefit of meeting with your potential letter-of-recommendation authors is that it will give you an opportunity to discuss your goals, career interests, and the schools to which you are planning to apply.
Faculty, in particular, get asked for many letters of recommendation. They are also busy with research, and teaching, and endless administrative work. They need plenty of lead time to get the letters written and submitted.
Admissions decisions are frequently delayed because a letter of recommendation has not been received by the admissions office. The applicant can make it easier for the authors of their letters of recommendation by providing a resume and, perhaps, examples of work or project summaries that were done under the tutelage or supervision of the writer.
Getting the Timing Right
You want to request your letters of recommendation early enough to guarantee that your application receives timely consideration. However, you also want to make sure that your letters complement the rest of your profile and support your case for admission. That means that you should complete at least a rough draft of your personal statement and any necessary addenda before approaching your recommenders. Your recommenders can draw on those drafts to tailor the content of their letters to your needs. In fact, their comments may actually serve to fill in any gaps in the rest of your application file. It is critical for you to take a holistic view of your application, just as admissions committees do.
Save Something for a Rainy Day
Finally, if you are fortunate enough to have more than two people who are able to write strong, detailed letters of recommendation for you, it is often wise to save at least one letter for later. You may get waitlisted at your top choice school. When that school reviews applicants on its waitlist for admission in the late spring or summer, the admissions officers will be looking to see that you updated your file with additional information. An outstanding letter of recommendation, particularly one that provides a different perspective than your original letters, might get you off the waitlist and into your dream school’s next incoming class.