Gearing up for Grad School, Part 5: Letters of Recommendation

Grad School Admissions

We've been breaking down the grad school application process, step by step, for the past few weeks. This week, we'll talk about letters of recommendation: What they are, who should write them, and what they should talk about.

Letters of recommendation deserve just as much attention as any other part of your application, for two very important reasons: They come from an outside perspective and speak about you in the third person. This gives them more weight. Letters of recommendation allow admissions officers to corroborate your academic story, be appraised of any personality traits you may not have mentioned throughout the rest of your application, and learn of any other qualifications (positive or negative) that you may bring to the table.

However, because recommendation letters (and recommenders) are also almost completely out of your control, you need to be aware of exactly what you can control, and how you can control it best.

You should try to start cultivating potential recommenders as early in your academic career as possible—even as early as freshman or sophomore year of college. As a general rule, the longer the student-teacher relationship, the better the letter. The most important part of a recommendation letter is not all the positive words that can be crammed into it, but how telling and sincere a letter is, and how much it rings like a personal account of the applicant–and this can only be achieved if the relationship between the student and the teacher is lengthy. Very rarely can applicants who have had only a semester’s worth of interaction with their recommenders obtain truly influential recommendation letters from them.

The best recommendations tend to have the following traits:

  1. They discuss specifics about the applicant. Don’t let your letter (or your recommender) wallow in generalizations. The most persuasive recommendations are those that speak about the applicant with certainty and in detail, and those that show that the recommender has had repeated contact with the applicant.
  2. They are lengthy. Recommendations that are less than a page are an automatic red flag. Can you really say anything of substance about anyone in 100 words or less? Make sure that every recommendation is a minimum of two pages.
  3. They are overwhelmingly positive and do not contain any hidden reservations or concerns. A letter of recommendation is not a forum for the recommender to discuss negative attributes. If you’re not sure that the recommender can only say positive things about you (or if they themselves express reservations about being able to write you a positive letter) do not have them write the letter.
  4. They are error-free. If you’re worried that the letter may have egregious spelling or grammatical errors, offer to read the letter over. If the recommender is not comfortable with having you read the recommendation (which may or may not be a red flag in itself), then make sure to stress the importance of proofing and spell-check.

Knowing what makes a great letter is definitely useful, but where most students trip up is in choosing their recommender. After all, everyone knows that the best letters are long letters that say nice things, but how do we choose the people who will write those nice, lengthy letters?

  1. Choose people who know you well. Do not choose the Nobel Prize-winning chair of the English Department if all he or she is going to say is that you sat in the front row and seemed to pay attention. Instead, choose people who can make the recommendation credible and powerful by illustrating the points they make with anecdotes that show you at your best. This means that, sometimes the person with the lesser-known name or the smaller academic reputation will write your letter. Fret not: It’s the content of the letter, not the title of your recommender, that will impress schools. It’s okay to choose your TA over the big-name prof.
  2. Choose people that actually like you. Applicants are sometimes in such a rush to get their recommenders lined up that they miss obvious cues that could tell them that the person they’re asking doesn’t really like them–or doesn’t really have anything positive to say. Having your recommender like you (really like you) is crucial: People that like the person they are writing about will actually take the time to write a good recommendation. A recommendation that looks like it took five minutes to write suggests that that is exactly how much time the recommender felt the applicant deserved. In contrast, a recommendation that looks well thought out suggests that the recommender is committed to helping the applicant. In addition, someone who likes you will take the time to write things in a positive light, choosing anecdotes carefully and thoughtfully. Someone who doesn’t like you is likely to pick the first thing that comes to mind.
  3. Choose people who can write well. Do not assume that all professors are created equal, particularly when it comes to articulating themselves. This is especially important when it comes to professors who teach subjects not usually known for their writing intensity.
  4. Choose people from a range of fields, backgrounds, and genders. If schools require more than one recommendation letter, choose people that can provide different—and complimentary—profiles of your personality and achievements. If schools receive very similar letters from very similar people, they may wonder about the breadth and depth of your skills and interests.
  5. Choose people able to support your application’s “marketing strategy.” Remember that every single aspect of the application needs to support the others and build on what has already been said. If you’re claiming to be a indefatigable academic or a crusader for the public good, a lack of recommenders who can bolster these claims may raise a major red flag with admissions officers.
  6. Choose the voice of experience. If the recommender is not obviously more senior than you, it will seem strange. Make sure it is obvious that someone “higher up” in the ranks is writing on your behalf (typically, TA or higher). Even though titles don’t matter, make sure the recommender accurately describes their relationship to you in the letter.
  7. Choose someone timely. Particularly in the realm of the recommendation letter, someone who will take the time to write a letter well and send it off in plenty of time is preferred. If the instructor you’re thinking about asking is known for taking 2 months instead of 2 weeks to return graded papers, perhaps you would be better off choosing someone else or making very sure that the recommender is on a concrete timeline.
  8. Choose someone recent. The longer the time span between relationships, the less likely a recommender will remember you with enough detail to be useful. And this should go without saying: Steer clear of any high school academic recommenders.

Who would have thought that a single letter would require so much thought? It just goes to show that no part of your grad school application should be taken for granted. Take the time to choose your recommenders carefully and help them craft a stellar letter, and you’ll reap the rewards in the long run.

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