It’s easy to think of recommendation letters as just more annoying documents that admissions counselors require – hurdles that you have to jump to apply to grad school. But they’re a crucial part of the story you’re telling to convince the school that you belong there. They can be powerful testimonials to your character, abilities, and potential that showcase your recommenders’ belief in your success.
As with any project that’s worth doing well, these letters require care and time. Think of each one as a joint venture between you and your recommender, in which together you craft a compelling argument for your admission.
Some rules of thumb for approaching each letter writer:
- You’re asking a big favor, so allow him or her sufficient time to write the letter
- Be thoughtful and considerate
- Provide the information he or she needs to write a strong letter
What’s your situation?
Your approach to this project will depend, to some extent, on your circumstances. If you’re a junior in college, for example, you’ll be asking for something different than a senior with two weeks to the submission deadline, or someone who graduated decades ago.
In addition, your approach may depend a little on your specific field of study. An application for a computer-science program may require more showcasing of your technical skills, for instance, while an application to social work or teaching may be better served by a great personal story.
If you’ve been out of school for a while, you may have more leeway in including more professional recommendations. If you’ve been in school within the past three years, aim to include at least one academic recommender.
If you can, include someone who holds the degree you’re seeking. He or she knows the rigors and requirements of the program, and can attest to their faith in your ability to complete it successfully. That goes double for alumni of the actual program.
At the same time, balance the need for an “appropriate” recommender with the person’s ability to vouch for you: If the person really doesn’t know you very well, you may be better off asking someone else who will wholeheartedly recommend you. A hearty endorsement from your longtime boss is a lot better than a limp recommendation from someone with a fancy Ph.D.
If you feel confident doing so, ask your prospective recommender if he or she is comfortable writing you a strong recommendation. Once again, half-hearted, generic endorsements won’t help you much.
Provide context, direction, and support
As early as you can, talk to your recommender about your interest in grad school. Make sure he or she knows your timeline and can have the letter drafted in time.
Next, what does he or she need to know? Provide some context: What do you want to study, and where? Why do you want to pursue this advanced degree? How will it serve your career goals?
Think about how you can help your recommender (hint: “How would you like to approach this project and how can I help?”). You may even offer to draft something for review – which could be very welcome if you have a tight deadline. Just keep in mind that some recommenders will prefer to write an original letter, and that’s fine. In the end, no recommenders will sign anything that makes them uncomfortable.
It’s your story – take charge
Each letter of recommendation is an opportunity to frame the narrative that the admissions people will see. If you leave things unexplained, they will come up with their own story. Conversely, you can take charge and actively shape their view of your abilities and character.
In this regard, your recommender can help strategically – for instance, by explaining apparent weak points in your transcript or adding a compelling dimension to your story. That D you received in your first English class? Maybe your recommender can point out that you were working full time and had a parent in the hospital that year.
Can each of your recommenders present a different, glowing side of you? Maybe your boss can describe the amazing initiative you showed in tackling a difficult project, while your academic advisor can talk about how much you helped struggling classmates with their homework.
If you’re considering a career change, maybe your recommender can strengthen your story. You’ve been working as an engineer, but want to pursue a master’s in counseling? Perhaps your recommender can point out how impressed he is at your listening skills and passion to help people.
Who’s reading these?
Your letters could be read by a single faculty member, or a whole committee, depending on the school and department. In any case, it will be someone at the tenured faculty level.
Keep in mind that these are nice people who want to be sure you’ll be happy and successful in their program – they’re not out to get you. They want to be as certain as possible that you will be a good student who will become a credit to their program.