Authors: Candice B. Limper & Matt Allen G.
Why are Letters of Recommendation required for Graduate School?
Graduate schools use letters of recommendation as a personality screening tool to determine if a person is a good fit for their university and program. In these letters, among other things, the admission committees are looking for clues as to whether the person being recommended will be productive at their university. Institutions and their programs have different work environments and cultures, so it essential to find a school that is a good fit for your own needs. After all, happy students are productive students. It is important the graduate school and the student is correctly matched so that everyone can function to the best of their abilities. A good letter of recommendation is the cornerstone of this vital relationship.
Who to Ask
When applying to a graduate school, the ideal people to get a letter of recommendation from those whom you have done research within a lab. The primary reason for this is because they are familiar with your work ethic. However, if you have not yet had the opportunity to work with someone in a laboratory or do not have job-related research experience, you still have other options. For example, you could, as a last resort, get a letter of recommendation from a Professor from whom you earned an excellent grade in a class. When assessing all of the possible people who may be able to write you a good letter of recommendation, it is essential to ensure that they are someone who you have shared a working relationship with for more than one semester. It is imperative to choose a letter writer who can be a soundboard for your work ethics. This generally requires that the person writing this letter has worked with you long enough to be familiar with your level of productivity, the way you approach various problems, and how you interact in a work environment.
How to Ask
Once you have identified someone whom you have a stable working relationship with and knows you well, the next step is to ask if they can write you a letter of recommendation. The worst thing that could happen is that they say no. This could happen for a few reasons 1) they are busy 2) they are not allowed to write one (business reasons) 3) they are unwilling to vouch for you. If someone says no, DO NOT be discouraged, just move on and ask someone else. After finding someone to write a letter for you it is even more important to find out whether they can write "a strong letter of recommendation." A strong letter of recommendation is a letter where someone can write about qualities that are unique to you opposed to someone writing generically. At this point, if they decide that they are unable to do this for you, that is ok, again, just find someone else to write one for you. Once you do find someone who can write you a strong letter of recommendation, you should try to make things as easy as possible for them. First and foremost, it will be useful to provide them with information to help remind them of the working relationship that you shared with them (see Interactions). It would also be a good idea to provide them with an excel spreadsheet of all the information that they will need for this process (see LOR Checklist). Also, keep in mind, it is appropriate to ask for a letter of recommendation about 1-2 months in advance of your deadline as asking for one any closer to when you need it by may not give a person enough time to write a letter for you. Professors, for example, have a hectic schedule and chances are they are also writing a letter of recommendation for many other people. By making sure they have ample time to write a letter for you, they probably won’t feel the need to rush which means there is a better chance that they will be able to provide one of higher quality.
After Letter Writers Submit the Letter of Recommendation
There are typically two different ways that schools will accept letters of recommendations; a printed letter that is physically mailed to them or (more commonly) an e-mail containing your letter of recommendation. Regardless, both usually need to be sent by the letter writer. Considering the fact that most correspondence is online, it is relatively rare that schools will require a letter to be physically sent to them via post. However, if this is needed it is courteous to provide the person writing a letter for you with a stamped and addressed envelope at least one month before it is due. In the more likely case that this can be sent online, you may want to offer the letter writer the option of receiving e-mail reminders regarding upcoming due dates. However, they may find these emails to be a nuisance, so it is extremely imperative to ask if they would like to receive these notifications because the last thing you want to do is irritate someone who is going to influence whether you get into a graduate program. If they do decide that they would like to receive these reminders, they can be sent to them 1 month, 1 week, or 1 day before the due date.
Saying Thank You
After all of the letters from the recommender are sent out it is important to show them your utmost gratitude. An essential step towards being successful in life is understanding the importance of acknowledging those who choose to help us along our career trajectories. As with everything else in your career as a student and future professional, expressing your appreciation needs to be approached appropriately and professionally. While this is a skill that you will learn to better develop with time and experience, one of the best ways to show your appreciation is through a hand-written letter; sending a well-written e-mail can suffice but the idea that you took time to write and send a hand-written message goes a long way in communicating your appreciation.