Tag Archives: recommendations

How to get a great letter of recommendation.

How to get a letter of recommendation (From staralee on Flickr.)

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.




Best books on writing.

Old books (From Paper Cat on Flickr)

Many of my students ask me for recommendations of books that can improve grammar and writing skills. So, I’ve compiled a short list of books that one should have, whether it’s for school, business, or for every-day written communication.

1. Strunk & White’s “Elements of Style”:

It’s difficult to stress how helpful and necessary this little book is. It’s about as classic as classic gets, even more so than jeans or John Hughes movies could ever be. Everyone, especially students, should have a copy of this book. I personally have gone through several copies, as I am constantly using it in academia, when working with students, and even for my own writing. It’s a true must-have.

2. Modern Language Association’s “MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers” (MLA format)

-Kate Turabian’s “A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations” (Chicago/Turabian Style)

-American Psychology Association’s “Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association” (APA format)

These manuals are for the thesis and dissertation formats and styles most commonly used in high school, college, and graduate schools: MLA, Chicago, and APA. At some point in your academic career, you will be required to use at least one of these styles. Meaning, you will be required to format and structure your paper and, most importantly, cite your research in a particular style of writing. The style you use, however, will depend on your major or academic track. Social and behavioral sciences will almost always use APA so, if that is what you are studying or plan to study in the future, be sure to have a copy as it will be your life’s blood for a long while. If you are a humanities or liberal arts student, you have a choice. Some swear by MLA and others fight to the death for Chicago (also called Turabian) style. Personally, I prefer MLA but simply because my school had a preference for it and I became most used to that particular style. Other schools may prefer Chicago, and you may grow to use that one as well. There is merit to being familiar with both (especially for those in academia, like me), but see what works for you. Either way, you should choose one of these and use it consistently, unless your teacher or professor says otherwise.

3. American Heritage College Dictionary

Yes, it’s a dictionary. But everyone needs a dictionary! Sure, there is Oxford, Merriam-Webster, and even Google– but A.H. takes the cake. It’s more progressive than most, reflecting more technological and social changes to the English language than the older, tonier ones.
There are also curse words, in case you’re wondering. All in all, it’s just a great general, mid-sized dictionary that would work for everyone.

4. Patricia O’Conner’s “Woe is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English”

Let’s face it: grammar can be confusing and downright frightening sometimes. The English language can be pretty ridiculous; trying to figure out what goes where is hard, and trying to understand why is even harder still. But, have no fear. I often recommend this book as it’s very easy to use, it’s very comprehensive, and it’s not as boring as most other grammar books. She clearly explains each rule (and there are many) with humor and plenty of examples. She also doesn’t make you feel stupid, which is an added plus. It answers most if not all grammar issues and problems but is totally not intimidating in the least. I am a big fan of this one, as are a lot of my students, and have always gotten a great deal of use out of it.

5. Zinsser’s “On Writing Well”

If you’re a nerd like me (which, let’s be honest, I have to be one to do this for a living) and want to invest further in how to improve yourself as a writer, this is one of the best. It’s been around for ages now and is consistently cited as one of the best resources a writer can use to improve their craft. He talks primarily about writing non-fiction but extends past academic writing and can be used for fiction as well– memoir, travel, and humor writing are also covered. I will admit, it can be a little hokey (see the “Field of Dreams” reference in one of the reviews, for example) but it is definitely a great insight into how to improve the quality of your writing and the importance of writing clearly, simply, and honestly. It’s not a must-have necessarily but, if you’re looking to improve yourself as a writer and want to hone your craft, I wholeheartedly recommend this.

Stefanie Arr