The Application Process: Part Four

Application Requirements

Each graduate program has different requirements for the application packet.  Most require at least official transcripts from each academic institution you attended, a personal statement or admissions essay, letters or recommendation, and entrance exam scores.

Grade point averages are strong indicators of your ability to manage graduate-level work.  Ideally, you should have a B average or higher, but mediocre grades do not mean that you won’t be accepted into a program though. Application packets are reviewed as a whole.  If your GPA does not meet the program’s requirements, you should focus on doing well on your entrance exam.

Letters of Recommendation
When selecting who you want to write a letter of recommendation, it is wise to ask yourself if that person:

  • Knows you well enough to write a letter that is sufficiently detailed and nuanced to influence the admissions committee.
  • Has records of professional achievement sufficient to convince the admissions committee that s/he is in a position to consider your potential as a graduate student.
  • Has the reputation for being thoughtful and conscientious enough to take the time to write a detailed letter of recommendation on your behalf.

Be prepared to ask this person a very tough question, and for the answer: “What will you be able to say about me?” When do you want to find out?  Before or after the graduate school does?  Also, if that person’s response to your request to write a letter of recommendation is less than enthusiastic, you should consider other options.

Some schools prefer that you submit letters of recommendation from professors.  However, if you have been out of school for a while, your boss and colleagues are acceptable, and sometimes preferred, alternatives.

Generally, admissions committees are impressed when faculty members go above and beyond what might be considered the minimal effort when writing recommendations.  Also, the letters of recommendation should add credibility to your personal statement.  For example, if you mention that a research project Professor Jones supervised motivated you to apply to graduate school, you ought to solicit a letter of recommendation from Professor Jones that discusses the research project.  Likewise, if you ask an employer or project manager for a letter of recommendation, have them discuss the project or position in detail.

When you approach someone with the request to write a recommendation, make sure you provide at least two to six weeks to create your letter of recommendation.  It’s important to stress the date you will be applying, and to ask if that will be enough time to write the letter.  Check in each week to see if the letter is complete and has been mailed – but don’t nag the person.

When requesting a letter of recommendation, you should provide whatever materials you think will help in the writing process.  These include your statement of purpose, a resume or curriculum vitae, and some suggested talking points such as projects you completed and how they directly relate to your field of study.  You might also include a paper or lab work tha thsows some of your best work, copies of all correspondence you have had with targed graduate programs, and a list of other professors or colleagues you plan to ask for letters.

Finally, be sure to write a sincere thank-you card once the letter has been submitted.  The person who submitted your letter of recommendation might have just helped you get in to grad school.

Find the previous three installments of Applying to Grad School:
Part One: Application Timeline
Part Two: Researching Grad Schools and Programs
Part Three: The Personal Statement/Admissions Essay

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