A good application package contains: a strong and empowering personal statement, transcripts from the university sealed and officially stamped, letters of recommendation that show how much of an intelligent and dedicated person you are, standardized test scores and last but not least…the application filled out correctly (you would be surprised how easy it is to mess that up when you are so focused on the “hard” parts). My tips for making sure your application stands out: show how well rounded you are, graduate school is a bit more dependent on innovation than undergrad. They don’t need to see that you can memorize a passage, they do need to see that you can create something worth memorizing and that you would bring prestige to the university as an alum. Make sure that your letters of recommendation are coming from people who are relevant and actually want the best for you and believe in you. Its hard to get a feel for an applicant from their paperwork and when you dilute that down with thousands of applications its very important that you stand out. Sometimes your favorite professor has just the right wording about the type of person you are to make the school want to see that for themselves so make sure you ask the right people and give them time to do it correctly. Standardized test scores, in my personal opinion unless test scores aren’t needed or you are some type of savant, there is no reason why you shouldn’t take a prep class for whatever exam you have to take. Yes it costs money and yes its a legitimate class that you have to do homework for. However sometimes a few points on your test is what separates you from going to either your top dream school or you safety net maybe school. Then when you think about the difference in salary you could be getting because of the difference in education you received well then that class pays for itself many times over. Finally your personal statement, it’s your chance to show the school who you are. Take it seriously and imagine that they would have to make the decision based purely off that essay. Read it, reread it, then have 3 other people read it, edit it and then have 3 different people read it. If you put together a good application then you will surely go where you deserve to be. Best of luck to you future scholars.
Letters of recommendation are tools that can take a maybe applicant and make them outstanding or take an outstanding applicant and make them unsuitable for the program. Letters of recommendation are typically not allowed to be viewed by the person who is requesting them. That being said you must ensure that the person you are requesting to speak about you candidly behind your back, will in fact, have your best interests at heart. Don’t ask the professor you had freshman year in the 400 person lecture whom you never spoke to, to give you a letter of recommendation. Most would (or should) say no or recommend you ask someone who knows you better. For the few that don’t I can promise that the letter will not be as strong as it should be, depending on the person it could even be negative. You want to ask people who are in good standing in the field you want to work who know you personally and academically and are happy with and believe in you. Also please remember that it is a matter of professional courtesy to give the letter writers at the very least a month’s notice that you are requesting a letter from them. Provide them with your CV and inform them of your plans and dates. You are allowed to check in on them as time progresses but no one likes to be pestered. Good luck.
Many of my colleagues have given great advice regarding how to secure strong letters of recommendation. Thus, I am going to share how I got my letters of recommendation. I decided to go to grad school during my sophomore year and it did not take long to realize that no faculty member at my institution knew me well enough to write a strong letter. Therefore, I talked to one of my professors and he recommended me to go to a summer research program. This provided me with my first letter (it is always good to have a strong letter from someone outside your school), as well as, enabled me to get hands-on research experience. Once, I got back I felt confident enough to ask one of my professors to hire me as a research assistant, hence, securing letter the second letter. Finally, realizing that I would need one more letter, in my senior year, I took an independent study with another faculty member so that I could work on a research project and he could get to know me better.
In summary, once you have decided to apply to grad school, if you do not have enough strong recommenders either: 1) go to a summer research program, or 2) enroll on independent study credits, or both.
As one of several key components already mentioned by the emissaries, the catch word is quality and I would say the only way anyone will receive a quality letter of recommendation from faculty would be by having built a strong rapport with a faculty member. Before you approach the potential recommender, gather yourself appropriately by having a strong resume or CV as well as an overall record of engaging with your potential recommender. Essentially, as long as you give your recommender at least a 3 week notice AND have been consistently communicating with him or her then they will more than likely do their part and write a great letter.
The point is that by having engaged your potential recommender already, he or she may have an easier process in writing about your abilities and potential. Have confidence, be assertive, and set aside some time to have a serious conversation with your potential recommender and let him or her know ultimately how much the recommendation would be beneficial to you and what your own expectations are. As a general note, I would have several potential recommenders and consider how each could speak to your specific capacities to progress through graduate school.
For a summary see the link below to a recently released webinar specific to recommendation letters. Enjoy.
Recommendations letters are one of the most important components of your graduate school application. While your GRE score signifies your ability to do well on standardized exams, recommendation letters tell a prospective program who you are and how you’ll fit within their department. Here are a few pieces of advice:
- If you’re even thinking about attending graduate school, go to a professor’s office hours. Share your academic interests with him or her. Take the initiative and help the professor get to know you. The better you get to know each other, the better he or she can speak to who you are. Plus, getting to know a professor will help you learn more about graduate school, provide you with a mentor, and might even help you secure some undergraduate research projects. Recommendation letters need to show:
- Your critical thinking skills
- Your writing abilities
- The type of scholar you wish to be
- Your work ethic
- Your ability to collaborate on projects
Thus, it’s really important to start putting in the effort now and find a professor who can address these characteristics.
2. If you attend a large university, it is likely you’ve taken classes taught by graduate students, or simply have more contact with grad assistants rather than the course professor. Although this grad student may know you better, it’s really important to secure letters from professors. Prospective departments want to see your abilities, as determined by an established scholar in the field.
3. If possible, get letters from professors with whom you’ve taken multiple classes. This way, professors can speak to your abilities across time and with different challenges.
4. Do your research! This means knowing why you want to attend a particular graduate program and why you’re right for each other. Share this information with those who will be writing your letters.
5. Be respectful of letter writers’ time. Bring them all the information they need, including addresses, any necessary forms, or web addresses if applicable. Most importantly, give them plenty of time and don’t forget to thank them.