The Low-Down on Letters of Recommendation

Letters of recommendation are a critical part of any application process in order to secure a spot in graduate school. College admissions officers take these letters very seriously, and before you are accepted for an interview, you have to come across as a desirable candidate. Letters of recommendation allow you and your character to come to life in the mind of the reader and fill in the gaps of your resume. This being said, you want to ask people to write letters who will be able to craft recommendations that will be compelling and unforgettable for the reader. There are many things that you can do during your undergrad to obtain a glowing testimonial. By following this guide and thinking about the process early on in your college career, you will have a mailbox full of acceptance letters the spring of graduation. 

Letters of recommendation are important for three reasons:

  1. They illustrate your resume - allowing your future employer to get to know you in a way that your GPA and test scores can't.
  2. They attest to your personality and character - you want the writer to be someone who can deeply communicate your strengths and potential and back it up with stories and examples of times that you have excelled. 
  3. They show that professionals, whether professors, coaches, or employers, are impressed by your accomplishments and believe in your future success.

The first step in obtaining great letters of recommendation is to make sure to establish relationships with working professionals early-on in your college career. 

As far as professors go, this is best done by frequently asking questions in class and staying engaged, as well as attending office hours to ask other insightful questions which show that you are doing your own research and putting in the hours after class to make sure you thoroughly understand the material. This will put you on their radar as a student who possesses great potential and allow them to get to know you on a deeper level than many other students. A professor will be more likely to write a letter for a student that is a willing participant and frequent inquirer than a student who sits quietly in class and gets all A's. Don't get me wrong, an A is impressive, but a persistent learner with a curious mind  is even more impressive. 

Talk to the professors in your field of study about the career path that you plan to follow. Listen to them when they give you advice about grad school and make sure that you are doing your own research on each school as well. Before writing a letter of recommendation, a professor will often ask the student, "Why do you want to go into this field?" Be prepared to answer this question. You wouldn't make a $100,000 purchase without thorough research and thought - you shouldn't go into grad school like that either. Weigh your options and make sure that each program you apply for adequately suits the career goals that you aim to achieve. 

Create a time-line during the beginning of your junior year which lists the dates that each of the schools/programs you plan on applying for need your application and letters of recommendation. After this, set a rough date for when you will approach those whom you would like to write your letter. 

Know the specifications for each program - Do you need five letters from professors? Do you need a letter from a past employer? Is it not specified? It is important to know exactly how many letters of recommendation are required by each post-grad institution to which you will be applying. Each school may have different specifications as far as the number of personal and professional references needed, so make sure to double check and make note of that early on!

Choosing the right people to write your letters of recommendation is the most important part of this process. Students will want to follow these five tips when it comes to choosing the perfect candidate to write their letters: 

  1. Choose people that will give strong recommendations - not people that know you vaguely. 
  2. Choose people with high ranking credentials/experience in your field that will explain why you are a good fit for the position that you are applying for.
  3. Choose someone who will speak to your growth.
  4. Choose people that will help your resume come to life (those who will explain why you excelled in either school/work/sports etc. and what you, uniquely, are able to bring).
  5. Choose people that will give insight into both your personality and your character.

Always, Always, Always ASK IN PERSON! It is important to approach the professional that you are asking in the right way when asking for a letter of recommendation. Plan what you are going to say, and most importantly, BE BOLD! You shouldn’t feel nervous about asking your professors to do this for you because professors with juniors and seniors EXPECT to be asked for letters of recommendation.

However, it is important to remember that professors are very busy people. Although most would love to help you out, they may not have enough time if you ask them to write a letter too close to your deadline. Try to ask at least 3 months before your letters need to be submitted in order to ensure that you have allotted more than enough time for the letter be written and sent in to the correct institution.

Here are some steps you can follow to make sure the process goes smoothly:

  • Write down a list of your accomplishments on a “brag sheet”, or provide a copy of your resume, and talk about your plans and goals with them so that their letter is appropriate and reflects upon your achievements 
  • Provide the writer with all necessary information that is given to you by the schools to which you are applying, such as the exact details/website/date for submission. Do whatever you can to make the process easier for them. They are doing you a favor and will appreciate the help.

Waive your right to read the letter. I know it may sound scary and you are probably dying to know what the writer has said about you, but keeping the letter confidential allows the reader to know that all of the information in the letter is candid and truthful.

Write a thank you! Professors or other professionals are not required to write these letters, they do it as a favor! make sure to thank them for their time and detailed recollection of their time with you.