A Good Word: Letters of Recommendation for Graduate Admission


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.

What Kind of Information Is Included?

The content of a recommendation depends on the type of program to which you are applying, and the format used.

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.

Who Should I Ask to Write for Me?

This will depend somewhat on what information your references need to provide. If you are applying to an traditional academic program, it is good to have people who have been your instructors write for you. A professional program may ask you to have a supervisor or co-worker comment on your work.

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.

How Should I Approach Someone About Writing A Recommendation?

Many professors are happy to write recommendations for their students. However, there are three important things to remember:
  1. Having someone write a recommendation is a privilege, not a right, so ask politely.
  2. Professors are often very busy people, so it is best to ask early, and to get any materials (e.g. a recommendation form) to your reference as soon as possible.
  3. You need positive recommendations, so don't be afraid to ask if a reference feels s/he can write you a favorable recommendation.

Should I Waive My Rights to Review Recommendation Letters?

The Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974 (FERPA) gives enrolled students the right to view the contents of their files. If recommendations are part of your file, you are entitled to see them along with the rest of the information in your file, if you are admitted and enroll as a student at that school.

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:

  1. It is commonly assumed that your references will be more candid in their statements about you if they know the recommendation will be kept confidential.
  2. If you are not admitted to a given institution, you have no legal right to see the recommendations anyway, unless you are a currently or previously-enrolled student at that university
  3. If you have chosen your references carefully so that you know they are going to give you a good recommendation, there is little need to see the recommendation once you are admitted.

What If I Haven't Been in School for Years?

If your instructors still remember you and the quality of your work well enough to comment favorably on it, then you will have little trouble as long as they are willing to write letters for you. If they don't particularly remember you and your work, it can be very helpful if you can supply samples of the work you did in the class to help the professor remember your work a little more clearly than simply by checking the gradebook. I would certainly offer to do at least that for any prospective reference-letter writer.

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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