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Need letters of recommendation? Choose the authors carefully.

July 23, 2020 by Mandy Byrd |

MAAS Letters of Rec BlogBefore you ask someone to write a letter on your behalf, ask yourself these questions.

When you’re applying to graduate school, you’ll notice that many programs require letters of recommendation. Although you won’t be the one writing the letters, of course, this takes a bit of planning on your part. It’s important to choose appropriate letter writers and give them plenty of time to write their (glowing) recommendations.

Although graduate schools differ in how they word their requirements, generally speaking, graduate programs want to see letters of recommendation to learn more about you, not just a list of references they can call. So you’ll want to give a lot of thought to who’s going to write those letters. Here are some questions to guide you through that process:

How do I know this person?
Let’s start with the people who should NOT write you a letter. Relatives, neighbors, college roommates, and best friends simply don’t make the cut. Sure, they’ll have great things to say about you, but how objective can they be? You want someone who can speak to your academic potential in a formal letter, such as:

  • Former professors who know you well
  • Academic advisors or professional mentors
  • Current or past employers
  • An advisor from a student group you were involved in
  • A supervisor from volunteer work, an internship, or a research project

This list is not exhaustive, of course, but it should get you thinking about who can best evaluate your ability to succeed in graduate school.

What will this person say about me?
You want someone who can speak to your skills and strengths, the quality of your work, and your work ethic. Ideally, you’re looking for people who know you so well on an academic or professional level that they can give specific examples of your academic or professional accomplishments.

Am I putting anyone in an awkward position?
You may be reaching out to college professors or employers you haven’t seen in several years, and that’s okay — just make sure you start by asking if they’re comfortable writing you a letter. You want someone who will be an enthusiastic participant. A lukewarm recommendation can do more harm than good. If you sense any reluctance, politely move on, and try not to take it personally. As you well know, sometimes there just aren’t enough hours in the day to get everything done on time.

Am I allowing enough time to get the letters submitted?
Speaking of time, this is huge: Give your letter writers at least a month (and preferably two) to get the job done. Keep in mind that college professors are teaching and doing research, and they get lots of requests for recommendations. So double-check all admission deadlines, make your requests early, and be clear about when the letters are due.

Once you answer these questions, make a list of those you want to ask for letters of recommendation and gather contact information so you’re ready to reach out when the time is right. It takes some thought and planning to find the right letter writers — but it will be well worth the effort when you get your letter of admission!

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