Letters of Recommendation

How Do you Obtain the Strongest Letters of Recommendation?

  • Develop good relationships with your professors. Show them that you are a student who cares about learning not just grades. Get involved in the learning process – participate in class, stop by during office hours if you have any questions, etc. If your professors know you better, they will be able to write a letter with much more substance. Graduate admissions committees know what a generic letter sounds like.
  • Try to get to know three or four professors and professionals in the field on a fairly close basis (such that you would feel comfortable asking them for a letter of reference). Most graduate schools require at least three letters of reference and some even want four letters.
  • When it comes time for you to ask for letters of reference, be sure to ask for them in person and in the most polite way possible. The people who agree to write letters of recommendation for you are doing you a favor. It is not a job requirement that they write the letters. Ask them first before you just assume they will write you a letter. Go to them preferably in person and say “Do you think you would be able to write me a good letter of recommendation?” Hopefully their answer is yes and you can provide for them the materials needed for each program with instructions.
  • Get the most well-known faculty/professionals you can to write your letters. Many times this means you should be getting letters of reference from faculty who are well-known for doing research in your area of specialization. If you are applying to a clinical psychology program, for example, try to get a well-known clinical psychologist who does research to write one of your letters. If you have a good recommendation from a psychologist who is well-known by other psychologists at other academic institutions, you have a huge advantage over another applicant with similarly good qualifications otherwise who was not recommended by a well-known psychologist. Academia is a closed-knit community.
  • While all of your letter writers do not necessarily have to be faculty (it depends on the program to which you are applying), it is a good idea to have the majority of your letters come from professors – psychology professors, that is. You might have, for example, an English professor do one of your letters simply because she can attest to your writing ability. But, most of your recommenders should be psychologists – psychology graduate students or psychology professors. Why? Because these people who know how difficult it is to succeed in graduate school and can evaluate accurately whether you truly have what it takes to succeed in the Psychology field.
  • While this is not essential, try not to have all male or all female recommenders. Some people believe that a mix of letters from both male and female recommenders indicates that you work well with others in general.
  • Consider getting a letter from a supervisor in your job situation if you work in an area related to the graduate program you are applying to. For example, if you are applying to some type of mental health program (e.g., clinical, counseling, social work) and you currently have a part-time job in the mental health field; it might be a good idea to consider having your job supervisor write one of the letters. Job supervisors with advanced psychology degrees themselves make the best letter writers because they have first-hand experience regarding what it takes to succeed in graduate school.
  • Give the people who are writing your letters all of the materials and instructions such that they can write you the best letter of recommendation possible.
        • Provide a list of the schools/programs to which you are applying and their deadlines
        • A copy of your curriculum vitae and/or resume
        • A copy of your personal statement (statement of purpose),
        • A copy of your degree audit
        • Stamped and addressed envelopes and Completed forms from programs that want letters mailed-in
        • Anything else you think might be helpful to them.
  • Give the people who are writing your letters very brief and clear instructions about what is needed by each of the schools that you applying to (some schools require that a form be completed in addition to the letter while others want the letter only), provide them with all of the forms, and give them pre-addressed, pre-stamped envelopes.  Strongly consider waiving your right to access all of letters of recommendation in the future. Usually, there is a checkbox on the form. By waiving this right, you are allowing the people who write your letters to say anything (positive or negative) they wish in their letters. In that sense, the letters will be perceived as genuine.
  • Be careful when selecting professors to ask for letters. Generally, professors will try to write the strongest letters of recommendation that they can. Generally, they don’t write bad letters on purpose. Nevertheless, some professors might simply tell you that they do not think they can write you a good letter if they can’t (some may simply say that do not have time, etc.). If a professor hints at the fact that he/she does not think they have much to say about you or that they have a few “concerns,” they may be trying to tell you they think you should go ask someone else.  Be sure to give the professors your requests to write the letters well before the deadlines for each graduate program to which you are applying. Then, after a reasonable interval, you can send each professor a reminder note about the upcoming deadlines.  After all is said and done, send each of your letter writers a thank you card. They have done you a big favor!