Getting convincing letters of recommendation for grad school

Getting convincing letters of recommendation from the right sources

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 Article contributed by graduate-school expert Dave G. Mumby, Ph.D.  


If one was to ask several graduate program directors or admission committee members about the types of weaknesses they see in typical graduate-school applications, something that is sure to come up time after time is the poor quality of many letters of recommendation. The complaints are not about the caliber of the applicants, however. Rather, the criticisms are often about the lousy job that some referees do when writing letters!

There are good letter-writers and there are bad letter-writers. We are not referring here to people who write good or bad things about a student. The fact is that some professors simply do not know how to write an effective letter of recommendation, even when they have only the most glowing regard for the student.

Ineffective letters are usually short, one or two paragraphs, and describe the student’s qualities in vague or general terms. These can kill an application. Good letters should provide informative anecdotes or some other revealing evidence to back up the positive claims that they make about the student. Some letter writers will not put in the required effort to work those things into their letters.

There is more that determines the effectiveness of letters of recommendation than how many good things the referees say about the student, or how well they back up their claims. It also matters how relevant the accolades are to the concerns of the potential graduate supervisor or admissions committee. The evaluation forms provided by some graduate programs request that referees comment on specific qualities of the students. For example, they might be especially interested in the students’ writing skills, their commitment to a career in a particular field, and their industriousness, to mention only a few.

Someone with high regard for a student can still write an ineffective letter of recommendation, one that does little to enhance the quality of the student’s application. So what can you do to ensure that your referees write positive and effective letters for you? Since you don’t write the letters yourself, there are obviously limits to how much control you have over what goes into them. But there are some things you can do to make it more likely that your letters will be replete with favorable and relevant statements about you.


Here are a few tips that will help you get the letters you need:

a) Ease the burden on your referees

Professors are busy people, and it takes time and effort to compile truthful, relevant and positive statements about a student, along with anecdotesor other evidence to support the claims. It can take even more time to compose it so it is truly convincing. Ease the burden on your referees by furnishing them with material they can use to prepare your letter. Provide them with as much relevant information about yourself as possible. Having the foresight to provide these materials might also add to your referee’s impression of your good judgment and consideration. Keep in mind that your referees will probably be busy writing for other students around the same time as yours. The easier you make their task of writing your letter, the more likely they are to spend the time and effort needed to make it a good one.

b) Give your referees the time they need to prepare a good letter of recommendation

Solicit your letters of recommendation a few weeks in advance of when you will be needing them. Students often underestimate the amount of time that goes into writing an effective letter of recommendation. If someone takes only ten or twenty minutes to write a letter of recommendation for you, then it is not likely to be much of a letter; it might say only good things about you, but it probably will be ineffective. Also, someone may agree to write a letter for you, but this task is likely to be very low on his or her list of priorities.

c) Solicit your letters in an appropriate fashion

Your interpersonal and social skills may be described in the letter, and the impressions that you make when soliciting the letter may contribute to the referee’s attitudes about you. As we have already discussed, proper timing is important and it can be perceived as rude or inconsiderate when a request for a letter of recommendation comes too close to the deadline by which it is needed.

d) Include the proper postage

Remember to include the proper postage. It is amazing how many students forget to do this. Your referees have agreed to commit a great deal of their time and effort to doing you a favor. They have not agreed to pick up part of the cost of your graduate school applications

e) Gratitude is warranted

Do not forget to express your gratitude for the time and effort your referees are going to spend trying to help you. Remember, a good referee who really wishes to help you will probably spend a considerable amount of time writing an effective letter of recommendation. Your professors are probably busier people than they appear to be. You will owe them a great debt for this favor, whether or not their letters end up helping you get into graduate school.

Check out these related articles on How to get effective letters of reference from the right people and How to ask for a reference letter.

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