Letters of Recommendation For Grad School: Getting Effective Letters From The Right People

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


One thought far from the mind of most students when they first begin college or university is, “What will I do after I get my bachelor’s degree?” The hard decisions about what to do next really won’t come for another couple of years. But when you near graduation and start making those decisions, you want to have as many options to choose from as possible. This is why you should begin planning for graduate school during your freshman year. This early start is necessary because certain things that you need to do to prepare a successful application require you to start two, or even three, years in advance.

Letters of recommendation

One thing you can do is study hard and earn good grades, but believe it or not, THAT ALONE WILL NOT GET YOU INTO GRADUATE SCHOOL! The selection of graduate school applicants is not so straightforward. One key component of any application will be the letters of recommendation (along with scores on standardized tests, application forms, and a convincing personal statement or essay).

It is sometimes argued that letters of recommendation are not very useful for discriminating between applicants because all letters are basically good, and so they have little impact on the outcome of the application. Whether or not the former is true, the latter certainly is not! A single statement in one letter of recommendation can sometimes make the difference between a successful graduate school application and an unsuccessful one.

You will probably need two or three letters of recommendations, and they should come from professors who know more about you than they could know just from having you in a class. If you want a professor to be able to write an effective letter, you must somehow display your scholarly aptitudes and perhaps also your research capabilities.

The best way to achieve this is to get involved in research that is going on in your department, either through a research-thesis course, or as a volunteer assistant. Understand that, unlike transcripts and standardized-test scores, which provide objective measures of your aptitudes, letters of recommendation provide more of a non-objective evaluation of who you are, your important character traits, along with your abilities, and your potential for success in graduate school.

Some of the people who will decide the fate of your application may be more interested in these letters than anything else. In some cases, an excellent letter can partly compensate for weaker GPA or standardized exam scores.


Some of the dimensions on which you might be evaluated include:

The ability to work alone, ability to work with others, commitment, communication skills (oral and written), independence, industriousness, intellectual ability, integrity, judgment, leadership abilities, maturity, motivation, organizational skills, originality, potential for teaching, social skills and others.

One thing is critical to obtaining effective letters of recommendation: Students must put themselves in a position to be evaluated. This may mean taking directed-studies courses, volunteering to help a professor with research, or even just talking with professors outside of class. These types of activities should be ongoing in the years or months leading up to the application. And the student must perform well. It is clear, therefore, that acquiring effective letters of recommendation will take some planning far in advance of when you will actually be needing them.

What kinds of things will your prospective graduate advisors be looking for in your letters? One thing that they may try to determine is how compatible you are likely to be with each other, in an interpersonal sense. They may be looking for some indication that these referees like and respect you.

Ask yourself right now what three people you would ask for a letter of recommendation. Could these people evaluate you on the dimensions listed above? If the answer is yes, then you can probably proceed and start asking for the letters you need. If, however, you answered no to the question, you should start taking the appropriate steps to ensure that you can get the letters that you need, when you need them.

It is important to solicit your letters of recommendation a few weeks in advance of when you will need them. Students often underestimate the amount of time that goes into writing an effective letter of recommendation. Referees may spend significantly more or less time, but 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 will likely have little or no impact.

Requesting letters of recommendation a few weeks in advance is no guarantee that your referees won’t still leave the task of writing them until the last minute and end up rushing anyway. It may, however, increase the likelihood that they will spend more time on your letters.

Another factor that can influence the effectiveness of a letter of recommendation is the credibility of the referee. This relates to several different factors. First, referees are typically asked to indicate how long they have known the applicant. If it has only been for a few months, others will assume that the referee may not know you very well.

The referee’s credibility is also related to how much academic experience he or she has; that is, how long this person has been around, and therefore, how much experience he or she has assessing the potential of aspiring graduate students.

All else being equal, the professor with more years of experience will generally be viewed as a more credible referee. More senior faculty members may also have more experience writing letters of recommendation, and therefore, they may do a better job of it, although there is no guarantee of this.

Check out these related articles on How to get a convincing letter of recommendation from the right source and How to ask for a reference letter.

Graduate School: Winning Strategies For Getting InFind lots more expert advice on getting into grad school in the newly released book: Graduate School: Winning Strategies For Getting InGraduate School: Winning Strategies For Getting In, 2nd edition, by Dave G. Mumby, Ph.D. It is the most comprehensive advisement handbook for College and University students who are considering graduate school. Whether you are still deciding if grad school is right for you, or are looking for ways to maximize your application, this book is for you. Paperback version available at AmazonGraduate School: Winning Strategies For Getting In & Barnes & Noble. eBook available on KindleGraduate School: Winning Strategies For Getting In and for Apple iPad/iBooks, Nook, Sony Reader, Kobo, and most e-reading apps. Get your copy now.  







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