While your grades, test scores, and experience will weigh heaviest in admission decisions, a well-written recommendation can often be a deciding factor, especially if you have any weak spots in your qualifications. You will typically be asked for two or three recommendations, but the number required varies from school to school. A program may provide a recommendation form to give to your recommenders or simply request a letter.
When you are deciding from whom to request recommendations, consider these contacts:
- A professor in your field who knows you well and can vouch for your academic and/or research abilities. Build relationships with professors early so that they can report on more than just your grade in a class.
- Someone in your field, preferably someone with an advanced degree, who has supervised you through an internship or job or who has overseen your fieldwork.
- Using family members, members of the clergy, and politicians as recommenders is strongly discouraged. Not only are their comments less relevant to your academic qualifications, they can actually be detrimental to your case.
Remember that you are asking recommenders for the favor of their time and effort, so treat them with care and consideration. Keep these pointers in mind:
- Start thinking about potential recommenders early. Visit professors during office hours, get involved in research or community service projects, and have conversations with supervisors.
- Your recommenders are busy. Start asking for recommendations early in your senior year, with plenty of time before your deadline. This typically means you need to be lining up recommenders in the early fall of one year if you plan to attend graduate school in the fall of the next year. Most programs will not begin to review your application until your file is complete, and they most likely will not review it at all if anything is late—so start early!
- Even if you plan to take a year or so off after graduation or defer your admission to graduate school, go ahead and get the letters while your recommenders are still accessible to you and you are fresh on their minds. Check out Interfolio–a credential management service–for an easy way to manage your letters of recommendation.
- Schedule an appointment with each potential recommender to sit and talk about how your chosen program aligns with your career goals and why you think you are a good candidate. This just may spark their memory about some positive things they can write about you.
- Be sure to give them the list of schools you are applying to, instructions for sending the letter, the recommendation form (if the desired program requires it), the deadline for receipt of the letters, your contact information if they should need to reach you, and any pertinent information that will help them write an appropriate letter. You might include your personal statement and resume to help jog their memories.
- Remember that writing recommendations is optional for the recommender. If you notice that a person you asked for a recommendation seems hesitant, move on to an alternate. You do not want to run the risk of their writing a poor recommendation.
- You can also make them aware of this information for faculty and staff recommenders.