Letters of Recommendation
Your letters of recommendation will reflect your academic and pre-professional accomplishments during your college career. So, the quality of your letters will depend on the experiences you select and how well you perform.
Most graduate schools will request 2-3 letters of recommendation written by faculty members.
The best letter writers are people who have personally witnessed your capabilities and who can, therefore, speak about your potential.
Your letter writers will be asked to rate you on a variety of traits: Academic achievement; intellectual potential; quality of writing/speaking; creative thought; maturity; work ethic, motivation; leadership; integrity, character; reaction to setbacks; interpersonal skills; emotional stability and more.
- Start by earning good grades in challenging classes. Communicate your enthusiasm and knowledge about the field to faculty. Visit office hours to ask questions and discuss what you're learning in your classes and on your own.
- Become a research assistant in a faculty member's lab. Demonstrate interest in the research process, write good reports, and contribute during lab meetings. Stick with projects until they're completed even if there are setbacks.
- Work as teaching intern, completing the work you're assigned carefully and on time. Ask questions about teaching methods. Practice teaching by tutoring students, leading review sessions, or teaching one class.
- Complete an internship experience for which you have a faculty supervisor - a service-learning or field experience course.
- Discuss your co-curricular experiences with faculty - your ability to set and achieve goals as a volunteer or leader of a student group 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! (Eye on Psi Chi: Winter 1998)
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 - research, teaching, internships.
- 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.
Your professors will want you to request letters at least 3-4 weeks before they are due.
What should you do?
- Getting a Good Letter of Recommendation (Eye on Psi Chi: Winter 1998).
- Getting Recommendation Letters for Grad School.
If the professor says that they will be able to write a strong letter of recommendation for you, provide them with:
Information about yourself.
Hopefully, your letter writers know you pretty well. Why provide an information packet? To remind them of details they may have forgotten and fill them in on things they may not know. Provide:
- A copy of your college transcript (unofficial) on which you indicate the class(es) you took with them.
- Entrance exam scores. Access them online and print the screen.
- A copy of your resume. Include volunteer positions, student & professional groups, part-time jobs or internships - especially those relevant to the career you're working towards. List scholarships, other honors, study abroad.
- A curriculum vitae - if you've participated in a research lab long enough to have authored a poster or pubication or given a presentation at a conference. If you've participated in a research lab, but don't have enough material for a CV, then put your research 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 you've written for your graduate school application.
- A cover page reminding the professor -- honestly, without exaggeration -- what you've gained from taking their courses or working with them outside of class. Remind them of any notable papers or projects you completed and what positive impact the experience had for you.
Information about the programs to which you're applying.
- A list of all of the schools to which you're applying. List for each school how the letter is to be submitted (online, email, snail mail) and the deadline for that school.
- Important: In your communications with your letter writers, emphasize the deadline by which the very first letter must be submitted. If you're submitting all of your materials to the professor via email, highlight the first deadline in each email you send them. If you printed materials to give them, put that date on the front of a folder/envelope and put all of your materials in the envelope.
- If letters are to be submitted online: As you open an application account at each school and enter your recommenders' names and email addresses, the recommenders will be sent link(s) to those schools. Make sure 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, stamped 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'll need to indicate that you either "will waive" or "decline to waive" your rights to see your letters when you complete your application.
If your letter has to be submitted as hardcopy, the school will request that you download and fill out a waiver form to give your letter writers. If your letters are to be submitted online, there will be a box that you'll need to check when you complete your online application to indicate your choice.
Good advice from Getting Recommendation Letters for Grad School:
"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: Good advice from Getting Recommendation Letters for Grad School:
"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."