Recommendation letters are a common requirement in the process of applying for admission to graduate study, as well as for financial support. They fill the same roles as references in an employment search: they serve as a confirmation of your capabilities. As such, it is important for you, if you are required to have letters submitted, to choose people to write on your behalf whose evaluation of you will strengthen rather than weaken your application.
The questions answered below are questions that appear regularly on the Usenet Newsgroups soc.college.grad and soc.college.gradinfo . If you can subscribe to those groups, you can ask these questions and get some answers from people who are already in graduate school on what worked for them and what didn't.
The type of degree program to which you are applying will make a difference in what your reference is asked to say about you. Your references may be asked to comment generally on your academic ability or specifically on your performance in coursework in a particular field. They may be asked to comment on your participation in class as well as your performance on exams or papers.
A highly research-oriented program will want to know primarily about your skills as a researcher. If you are applying for graduate study in an helping profession like counseling, your references may be asked to comment on your interpersonal skills. If you are applying for graduate training in a profession, e.g. Business, Education or Nursing, your references may be asked to comment on your work in the field.
Some programs have a form which they ask your references to fill out, answering short answer type questions, or asking your references to rank you among the students they have taught. Other programs ask for the same information in an actual letter format. Some programs combine the two they ask your reference to fill out a form, and invite them to make general comments in letter form.
In any case, it is best to choose as references people who know you well enough to make specific comments about your ability. It is also important to choose people who will write positive recommendations. It does you little good if your letters contain negative comments about you.
Specific comments on your performance in school or at work are also helpful. If your reference can write that you consistently "came to class prepared and asked intelligent questions that contributed to class discussion," or "demonstrated foresight and initiative in implementing policy," that will help your cause far more than "Student X was in my class, and did well," or "Ms Y has been employed here for three years."
Another consideration is the reputation of your references. If you can get a favorable reputation from a professor who is well respected in your field, that will certainly strengthen your application. But if you can get a stronger recommendation from some one with less prestige who knows you better, should you use that instead? This can be a tradeoff situation,and it can be hard to know which is more beneficial. Specific comments about your work from someone who knows it very well can easily be more helpful to you than a vague positive comment from a more famous person.
It is common practice for a recommendation form or instructions to ask the applicant to sign a voluntary waiver of review rights, which means that you are giving up your rights to see the recommendations written on your behalf. The key word here is voluntary. If you feel strongly about it, you may refuse to give such a waiver.
In my opinion, there are three good reasons to waive your rights to see recommendations:
The possibility that you may choose not to go immediately on to graduate school is one more good reason to cultivate and maintain a professional relationship with the faculty at your undergraduate institution(s). Keep up with the field and their research interests. Take opportunities to ask them questions about their work. If you are genuinely interested in their work, it should be easier to get references from them.
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last revised 110196