Strategies for Obtaining Letters of Recommendation
Most graduate programs expect a student to submit three letters of recommendation with their application. Asking someone for a letter of recommendation can be one of the most daunting steps in the process of applying to graduate school, particularly if your undergraduate experience has been limited to large classes.
Unless otherwise stated, these letters may reflect a combination of academic, employment and community experiences that relate to your field of interest. Doctoral programs, however, often prefer academic- and research-oriented letters from tenured faculty. Master’s programs often prefer that at least one letter come from a professor, while the other letters may come from internship supervisors, volunteer coordinators, etc.
Whom to Ask?
Choosing your letter writers can be difficult. Consider faculty members, administrators, internship/co-operative education supervisors, and employers. You want someone who not only knows you sufficiently well, but who is willing to write you a strong letter. An impersonal, general, or lukewarm letter can be nearly as damaging as a flatly negative one, so think carefully about not only who knows you, but who is willing to support you. Graduate and professional school admissions suggest the following make the best letter writers:
- knows you well
- has the title “Professor”
- knows you long enough to write with authority
- knows your work
- can describe your work positively
- has academically evaluated you in an upper-division class
- knows your educational and career goals
- can favorably compare you with your peers
Note: letters from family friends, political figures, and the like usually are discouraged and may, in fact, be detrimental.
Keep in mind that no one person will satisfy all of these criteria. Aim for a set of letters that covers the range of your skills. Ideally, letters should cover your academic and scholastic skills, research abilities and experiences, and applied experiences (e.g., cooperative education, internships, related work experience).
The ideal letter of recommendation comes from someone who knows you both in and beyond the classroom. Conducting research through an independent study course (199) or volunteer experience under the direction of a faculty member provides the best opportunity to share your ideas and to interact with professors. Courses that require you to do a project or term paper can also spotlight how you use and integrate information. Admissions committees get excited when they see students who have worked on projects that break new ground or offer alternative approaches to accepted ideas and practices. Visiting professors during office hours to discuss topics that were introduced to you in a large lecture demonstrates your interest in the subject matter and offers you an opportunity to build relationship with your professors.
While professors writing a letter of recommendation may discuss your academic ability and intellectual capacity, supervisors may also attest to your applied knowledge and skills. The more closely an internship or employment experience relates to the type of graduate study you wish to pursue, the more ideal that supervisor as a potential recommender. Don’t underestimate the potential of volunteer experiences. Students who are unable to find employment or obtain an internship can volunteer even a few hours a week on an on-going basis and obtain a strong letter.
If your academic experience is now coming to a close and you were unable to develop experiences as described above, you may still have more access to potential letter-writers than you think. Although there may be schools that express a preference for letters from faculty, requesting a letter from a teaching assistant (TA) may provide an acceptable alternative. Contacting former professors from courses in which you did very well, especially courses that involved writing a paper, should also be a consideration. E-mail the professor, remind them of you who are, update them on what you’ve been doing since taking their class, and ask for a meeting to discuss graduate school.
How to Ask
Remember that asking for a letter of recommendation is a very personal request. As such, you should make every effort to set up a face-to-face appointment with your recommenders. Try to avoid asking for a letter of recommendation by e-mail if at all possible. Scheduling an in-person appointment has its advantages.
First, you will be able to gauge whether or not your recommender is enthusiastic about writing you a letter. You should always ask whether or not they feel comfortable enough in writing you a strong letter of recommendation. If you sense any hesitation on their part, or if they are in any way ambiguous in their reply, hear them out, thank them, and prepare yourself to find an alternative.
Second, an in-person meeting allows you to articulate more thoroughly why you want to attend graduate school and your future goals, among other things. While you might feel somewhat intimidated in the presence of your recommenders, remember that the in-person appointment is meant to be a conversation.
Finally, a by-product of the in-person appointment is access to information about the programs you may not be familiar with. Many students forget that their professors have colleagues at the institutions and programs to which they are applying. They may have similar research interests and may have even collaborated on projects or experiments. If you use the opportunity to discuss your graduate school choices along with your request for a letter, most professors will be very generous in giving you the inside scoop to other departments and programs.
Recommenders always appreciate when you are considerate of their time. You should always give your recommenders ample time to write a letter for you: four to six weeks if at all possible. Remember that as the quarter progresses professors get increasingly busy and time constraints become more relevant. Ask early in the quarter so that you get the best possible letter.
To assist your recommender and improve the strength and detail of the letter, give them a packet of information that includes as much of the following information as possible. Offering this packet to your recommender upon asking for a letter can also help them feel more comfortable accepting your request. Items to include:
Brief Version of Statement of Purpose
This should discuss:
The field and specialization you plan to pursue
What has led you to pursue them
Which experiences have contributed to this interest or have prepared you to pursue it in graduate school; any inconsistencies in your record
Your career objective
What you seek in a graduate program and which programs you currently plan to apply to
Communicating this information will allow your writers to describe their experience with you in the context of your objective. When writing the statement of purpose, spend some time reflecting on all of your academic and work endeavors. Like many students, you may have more experiences than can fit in a 2-3 page statement (the typical page requirement for the statement of purpose). Take some time to narrow down your experiences to only the most salient ones—those that have contributed to your desire and preparation for a graduate degree.
Resume or Curriculum Vita (CV)
Typically, a resume recounts various work, internship, and academic experiences. Providing a resume, if your experience has been very broad, may help your writers to know more about you and your experiences outside of academia and allow them to personalize their letter. A curriculum vita is focused more on your academic and
closely related experiences such as internships, independent research projects, and paper/poster presentations. Depending on the type and amount of experience you have, you may find that one is better suited to you than the other. The Internship and Career Center (ICC) can assist you in the preparation of either the resume or the CV. You can also make an appointment to have your resume and/or CV reviewed by one of the ICC counselors. Please note that if you intend to pursue a career in academia, the CV will be the document that best details your experiences.
Copy of a Paper
Take a copy of one of your best papers completed in the class of the professor from whom you’re requesting a recommendation. This way, your writer, rather than having to read a whole paper, can review the comments they (or the TA) wrote.
A copy of your transcript (unofficial is fine) provides additional information about your academic preparation with regard to course selection as well as achievement. Discuss with your writer if you are concerned that your overall academic work does not reflect your ability and potential for graduate school study. If you have concerns about your overall GPA, so will the admission committee—and your professor may be able to write something positive on your behalf to compensate.
If your relationship with your recommender is minimal, you may want to provide a cover letter that summarizes the discussion you intend to have. Be sure to address why you’ve chosen to ask them for a recommendation. This is sure to be a question they’ll have on their mind when you come to them with your request. Discuss why your time or other responsibilities may have not allowed you to participate in activities outside the classroom (i.e. employment, family responsibilities etc.), how well you did in their course, how their course contributed to your decision to further your studies, how their research interests parallel your own, and why they are in a position to evaluate your experience and potential.
Thank You Notes
Once you have a strong, well-written letter of recommendation, you have one final task—a thoughtful and considerate thank-you note. Your note should recognize the time and effort your recommenders put forth on your behalf and offer to keep them updated on your progress. A thank-you note can go a long way in earning their good will should you need to request another letter or a revision to the present one. And, of course, it’s just good manners.
While you might be tempted to think you can bypass a handwritten note with a thank you e-mail, think twice before doing so. Why? Because, believe it or not, very few students take the time to send their recommenders a handwritten note, and doing so will make an impression.
If you would like to discuss your options with a Pre-Graduate School Advisor, please check the online calendar at http://advisingservices.ucdavis.edu for drop-in advising times.
Graduate School-Tara Kuther, Ph.D.
Internship and Career Center (ICC)
2nd floor, South Hall