If you can’t tell, we’re working through a series of applying to graduate school. We’ve talked a little about the dreaded entrance exam, the application timeline and even how to go about finding the program that best suits your career goals and personality. Another important factor in the application process is the letter of recommendation. More often than not, you will be required to submit three letters of recommendation from professors who can attest to your ability to perform at the graduate level. If you have been out of the classroom for more than a few years, talk with the admissions committee about your options. They will often suggest that you request letters from a supervisor or colleague.
As you begin to think about individuals who are qualified to write on your behalf, consider those who know you well enough to sufficiently express your detailed qualifications for the program to which you’re applying; have 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; and have the reputation for being thoughtful and conscientious enough to take the time to write a detailed letter. Once you have people in mind, brace yourself for the answer to a tough question. You will want to know what each person has to say about you. If the person’s response is less than enthusiastic, you should consider approaching another faculty member or colleague.
Once you know who you want to approach, gather materials that will help the authors create their recommendation. Documents should include your resume, your personal statement, and an academic paper or lab work that portrays some of your best work. All of this can give different reference points from which to write, and your professor, colleague or supervisor will be able to write a stronger letter on your behalf. You will also want to provide your contact information and the dates by which the letter should be received by each admissions committee.
Now, you’re ready for “the ask.” An important reminder: your acceptance into a graduate program, and thus their letter of recommendation, is not the top priority for many of the people you will approach. Be sure to give ample time for them to write your letter; provide at least four weeks’ notice before the application deadline. If you are intimidated by the thought of asking for a letter, strike up a conversation about your goals to go to graduate school. The more you talk about your interest, the more likely a faculty member will offer assistance in applying. Once you have secured your team of authors, be sure to write a sincere note of thanks. And no, an email will not suffice. A hand written thank you note goes a long way.