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Indiana University Bloomington

Letters of Recommendation

Your letters of recommendation will reflect your academic and pre-professional accomplishments during your college career. The quality of your letter of recommendation will depend on the experiences you select and your performance.

  • What kinds of academic and preprofessional accomplishments contribute to excellent letters of recommendation?

    • What are your cumulative and major GPAs? Did you earn good grades in challenging courses on topics related to the graduate programs to which you are applying? Did you study intensely for the GRE and score well?
    • If you worked as a research assistant, did you demonstrate real enthusiasm for the research, write excellent research reports, and contribute original thoughts during lab meetings? Did you stick with a project until it was completed even if there were setbacks?
    • If you worked as a teaching intern, did you complete the work you were assigned carefully and on time, ask questions about pedagogy, and practice teaching by tutoring students, leading review sessions, or teaching a class?
    • Did you complete internship experiences relevant to the career in which you are interested? If, for example, you're interested in a career as a practicing clinical or counseling psychologist, did you demonstrate your knowledge of the field, your maturity and interpersonal skills during a clinically-related public service opportunity or job?
    • Did you demonstrate teamwork, emotional stability, and the ability to set and achieve goals as a leader of a student group, as a volunteer, or during a semester studying abroad?

  • You're Writing Your Own Letter of Recommendation (Eye on Psi Chi: Fall 2008)
  • It Takes More Than Good Grades! Straight Talk About How to Get Strong Letters of Recommendation From Faculty (Eye on Psi Chi: Winter 1998)

Who should you ask for a letter of recommendation?

Many graduate programs will ask you to submit 2 to 4 letters of recommendation from professors, employers, or other mentors.

Patricia Keith-Spiegel and colleagues (Complete Guide to Graduate Admissions, 2000) report that graduate school admissions committees rank the most valuable sources of recommendations as:

  • A mentor with whom the applicant has done considerable work.
  • The applicant's professor, who is also a well-known and highly respected psychologist.
  • An employer in a job related to the applicant's professional goals.
  • The chair of the academic department in which the applicant is majoring.
  • A professor from another department from whom the applicant has taken a relevant upper-division course.

The best letter writers are the people who have personally witnessed your academic and professional capabilities and who can, therefore, speak about your potential. If the only context in which a faculty member has known you is the classroom, then they may not be able to rate you on traits that graduate schools want to know about. Do the faculty who see you only in the classroom know you well enough to rate you on academic achievement; intellectual potential; quality of writing/speakin; creative, original thought; maturity; hardworking, motivated; leadership; integrity, character; reaction to setbacks; interpersonal skills; emotionally stability; and special skills?

What should you do when it is time to request the letters?

Your professors will want you to request letters at least 3-4 weeks before they are due.

What should you do? See Getting a Good Letter of Recommendation (Eye on Psi Chi: Winter 1998) and How to Get the Best Recommendation Letters for Grad School.

If the professor says that they will be able to write a good letter of recommendation for you, visit the professor's office and provide them with information about yourself:

  • A copy of your college transcript (unofficial) on which you indicate the particular class(es) you took from that letter writer and the grade(s) you received.
  • Your GRE scores - you can access your GRE scores online and print the screen.
  • A copy of your resume. Include volunteer positions, student & professional groups, part-time jobs or internships emphasizing experiences that are relevant to the career you are working towards. Be sure to list scholarships or other honors you've received and describe of any study abroad programs in which you've participated.
  • A curriculum vitae if you've participated in a research lab long enough to have authored or co-authored posters, presentations, or publications. If you've participated in a research lab, but don't have sufficient material for a CV, then put your lab experience on your resume. Important - provide the name of the faculty member in whose lab you worked, information about the specific research project on which you worked, and what you accomplished.
  • A copy of the personal statement that you've written for your graduate school application.
  • Write the professor a brief letter letting them know -- honestly, without exaggeration -- what you've gotten from working with them as a research assistant, teaching intern or by taking their classes. Remind them of any notable papers or projects you completed in their course and let them know what kind of a positive impact the experience had for you.

You'll also need to provide information about the programs to which you are applying:

  • A list of all of the schools to which you are applying in order by the deadlines by which the letters must be submitted online or put in the mail in order to arrive on time. List the name of the degree program for each school and exactly how the applications are to be submitted: Online? Mailed directly to the school? Sealed & signed and returned to you?
  • Important! In your communications with your letter writers be sure to emphasize the deadline by which the very first letter must be submitted online or put in the mail to arrive on time! If you are going to give the faculty member printed materials, put your name and the deadline by which the first letter must be mailed or submitted online on the front of a 9" x 11.5" envelope and put all of your materials in the envelope. If you are submitting all of your materials to the professor via email, then highlight the first deadline in an email to the professor.
  • If letters are to be submitted online: As you open an application account at each school and enter your recommender's names and email addresses, the recommenders will be sent link(s) to the schools to which you are applying. Make certain that you've done your part so that faculty get the links they need at least one week before the due date for the first letter. Remember to click the box next to either "will waive" or "decline to waive" your rights to see the letter (more below).
  • If the letters are to be printed and mailed directly to the school or returned to you, provide fully addressed envelopes and include any forms from the schools that must be completed by the recommender. Typically, there is one form that will include both a waiver statement and rating table that the professor must complete and submit with your letter. Remember to fill out the top of that form and sign it and indicate whether you "will waive" or "decline to waive" your rights to see the letter (more below).
Waivers: You need to indicate either "will waive" or "decline to waive" your rights to see your letters so that your letter writers and the graduate school knows your choice. know your intent. Very good advice from Dr. M. Dennis Jacksonn, author of How to Get the Best Letters... Last Updated August 2010:
"Most recommendation forms will ask you to sign a voluntary waiver that means you are surrendering your right to view the recommendations written on your behalf. Many professors feel uncomfortable writing an open letter, and some even balk at doing so, if you don't waive your rights to view the letters. Some grad school selection committees may weigh lightly any non-restricted letters in your application. So, waive your rights to read the letters. You can generally trust that letters produced by those who have agreed to help you will be positive (and, again, you can help see to that, by giving your references plenty of help once they agree to write a letter)."
Reminders: Additional good advice from Dr. M. Dennis Jackson, author of How to Get the Best Letters... Last Updated August 2010:
"Because professors tend to be preoccupied with their own academic work, it's a good idea for you to remind them, gently, about one week before your application deadline, that you need them to finish your letter. Remind them again, as the deadline closes in. Most professors will respond to that prodding in a friendly fashion. They know their letter is essential, and they once went through the same anxiety-producing process of tracking down letters and preparing portfolios and so on. Be assertive in a friendly way, until you know their letter is in the mail."

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