Nearly every program and school asks for at least one letter of recommendation in the application packet– often, they even ask for two or three. The good news is that these recommendations are written for you– for once, you don’t have to outline! That being said, this doesn’t mean that there isn’t any preparation involved.
Hard data, like your GPA and test scores, and your essays, like your personal statement, diversity statement, or addendum, are relatively in your control, based on your own preparation, hard work, and writing skills. Letters of recommendation, however, are a different animal. When getting a recommendation letter, you are entrusting someone else, your recommender, to write about your intellectual ability and academic capability. You are essentially leaving it to your recommendation writer to inform the admissions counselor —directly– of what they can expect of your performance.
The purpose of a recommendation is to provide an insider’s view for the admissions counselor– your letter writer is essentially telling your prospective school of what expect of you within the classroom, from administrator to administrator, tête-à-tête. A recommendation then functions very much like a reference when applying for a job; it provides valuable information to admissions committees with information that isn’t found elsewhere in the application. It is a detailed discussion of the personal qualities, accomplishments, and experiences that make you an ideal candidate.
To guarantee a good recommendation, you clearly have to choose someone who will vouch for you in the best way possible. So, you will have to do some careful thinking. To help you, here are some tips on how to ensure your recommendation letter is a great one.
Choose recommendation writers who know you best.
There are a number of factors you need to keep in mind when considering possible recommenders. Obviously, you need to find someone who can describe you in a positive light; however, the writer in question must also know you well enough to back up their high opinion of you. Your letter should be more than just a good description of your abilities– it should also be well-written and knowledgeable of who you are as person, an applicant, and as a student. Be sure to choose someone who not only knows you, but also knows your work and who would then be able to write about you with confidence and with authority. You should also consider how favorably this person could compare you to your peers.
That being said, this doesn’t necessarily mean that your writer should automatically be the person who knows you for the longest. You need to find someone who can speak of the breadth of your work– ideally, the person who has worked the closest with you and who knows you better, however long that may have been.
Your recommendation should reflect your past achievements.
Much like your personal statement, your recommendation should explain why you are an ideal candidate. Now, a recommendation is essentially professional’s opinion and, as such, as recommendation should be backed up, with concrete examples.
Don’t take for granted how much your recommendation writer knows about you. If you’ve been following along, they should already know you better than most. But, by all means, you should give them a fuller picture of what you’re accomplished and what your interests are. The more informed they are, the better and stronger their recommendation will be of you and your abilities.
So, when you meet with your advisor or professor, bring your resume. You can also bring a draft of your personal statement or diversity statement, if you’ve started working on them already. Don’t be afraid to talk about other aspects of the admissions process; after all, your recommender is there to help you get in. Talk to your recommender and discuss the achievements you’ve been awarded or accomplishments you’ve made in other classes, at work, or elsewhere. Allow your recommender to have full knowledge of all that you’ve have done; remember, their recommendation can only be as well-informed of your accomplishments as they are themselves.
Your recommendation should also include your future professional and academic goals.
Yes, when you ask someone to write a recommendation letter for you, you are already involving them in the process of applying to prospective schools. However, their involvement is more than just writing a letter for you; they are directly speaking to the admissions counselor on your behalf. As I said above, you want to choose someone whose recommendation can speak well of you. He or she will also know that you are clearly applying to a particular school or program and are hoping to get in. But, do they know know what your goals are exactly?
As I had said above, your recommender will only know as much as you tell them. When asking for a recommendation, talk to your letter writer. Discuss at length what your goals are, and what you are hoping to accomplish in the future. Your letter should ideally reflect your professional aims– by doing so, you will bolster your application two-fold: it will show that you are serious enough in your goals to involve others in your career planning and give you that professional affirmation that you are committed to succeeding.