Tom O’Toole, Executive Director of CIPA, shares tips for obtaining high quality letters of recommendation for your graduate school application.
Letters of recommendation are the “great unknowns” of the graduate school application process. Most applicants waive access to recommendations, so they never really know what they are going to get. Some recommenders put a great deal of thought into recommendations, and others have a generic letter of recommendation into which they simply enter the applicant’s name. Unless you have seen a letter previously written by a potential recommender, there really isn’t much you can do to control the quality and depth of a recommendation. Here are a few tips, though, to ensure that the letters submitted on your behalf make the best possible case for your admission:
Talk First: Before a recommender writes on your behalf, you should explain your purpose for pursuing graduate studies. You should also ask them for a candid assessment of your knowledge, skills, and abilities. In the past, I have read recommendations that convey the applicant’s poor performance and utter lack of preparation for graduate studies. This suggests the applicant has seriously misjudged the recommender’s perception of their qualifications. Not all recommenders will decline writing on behalf of an applicant if they do not have anything good to say. Having an in-depth conversation beforehand will give the recommender more insight into your objectives (which will allow them to speak to specific, relevant attributes of your background) and will provide you with a heads up if the recommender is not able to frame your capabilities and promise in a positive light.
Time Crunch: Well-written recommendations take a good deal of time to prepare. Giving recommenders exploding deadlines can lead to disastrous results—either the recommender will be in a negative frame of mind when writing, or the letter they do write will be the “bare minimum.” If you do not want the “bare minimum,” you should give your recommenders at least three weeks to write recommendations.
The “Razzle Dazzle” Problem: One of the biggest mistakes applicants make when soliciting letters of recommendation is selecting recommenders who are high-profile, but have virtually no depth of experience with the applicant. A typical example is an applicant who has interned with a member of Congress. The applicant presumes that the admissions committee would be impressed by a recommendation on congressional letterhead, or signed by Congressman/Congresswoman X. The problem is that, generally, most interns do not have much access to the congressman/congresswoman they are working for, and the letters are usually the “bare minimum” (or written by the applicant themself, which is very easy to detect). Choose recommenders who have had the most exposure to your work and will be able to provide rich, in-depth examples of your performance. Some of the best recommendations I have read have been written by teaching assistants who observed an applicant’s performance in a small seminar setting. Go for substance, not flash.
Skip the Fluff: In the recommendations I read, I am looking for concrete examples of public service commitment and strong academic/professional performance. This is another reason why you should ensure that your recommenders have had sufficient exposure to your work. Even if you received an “A” in a course of 500 students, unless you really stood out, chances are the instructor’s recommendation will be generic (at best, a restatement of the applicant’s resume/CV; at worst, a lengthy discussion of what their course was about, which refocuses attention away from the applicant). To be sure, some recommenders, even if they worked closely with an applicant, suffer from “amnesia” and simply forget critical details of an applicant’s experience. This is yet another reason why you should thoroughly discuss your objectives and ensure potential recommenders have enough material to include in their recommendation. I often suggest that applicants prepare an outline of defining experiences the recommender should include in their letter (challenges the applicant overcame during their academic/professional experience, specific examples of strong performance, exposure to techniques that are germane to the field). Such an outline can be useful as a set of talking points during your initial discussion with a potential recommender.