The Ins and Outs of Letters of Recommendations
The inside scoop on how to make the most of your recommendations.
Posted October 31, 2018
Some of the most important parts of your application to graduate/professional school are letters of recommendation (also called letters of reference). These letters involve a writer describing various aspects of you—skills, personality, work habits, achievements, etc. While these letters are important for those applying to graduate/professional school, they are also critical if one applies for a job, scholarship, etc. I (Jonathan) would like to give you some advice of these letters, based on serving on graduate admission committees for 30 years, as well as talking to countless faculty members and career counselors over these years.
What kind of letter do you need?
Your letters need to say who you really are. Decision makers can always look at your transcript for your classes/specific grades, and they can scan your resume for a basic summary of your life experiences. However, a letter of recommendation should give the reader real insight into who you are. In this way, each letter needs to cover both your personal qualities (e.g., strengths, personality, leadership qualities, and interests) and your academic abilities. I believe that each letter should be long/detailed, and very positive. A long/detailed letter shows that the letter writer really knew you. As for the positive nature of each letter, you may wonder why a letter that communicates who you are should not include your “blemishes”. My answer to this is that any less than complimentary remark may lower your chances of selection. Remember, the competition is fierce! You must have letters that make you stand out among the crowd. I have seen remarks like “he is sometimes quiet” lead to a negative evaluation by a decision maker. The only way a letter writer can write about you in a detailed and positive manner is if they know you really well. Thus, it is critical that you develop a meaningful professional relationship with each letter writer. The kind of letter you need is not going to be written by a faculty member who you had in class but you never talked to. But, if you worked in the lab of a faculty member or you talked to your Professor about class topics on multiple occasions, you are much more likely to secure a meaningful letter.
Who should you ask?
Keep in mind that you usually need three letter writers, and three really means three. That is, it is very important that you are 100% sure that when someone agrees to write a letter that they actually write the letter. It is a real negative when your application is missing letters. Decision makers will wonder why someone you listed to write a letter would not send it in. For those specifically applying to graduate or professional school, please note:
- It is very odd (and will be frowned upon) if you do not have at least one letter from a faculty member in your major.
- You should try to get at least a letter from at least one faculty member who is a regular-title series (tenured and does both teaching and research). These faculty members are perceived as more representative of faculty in your major, and more highly regarded by decision makers. If you can secure a strong letter from a “big name” faculty members, that can be a real plus.
- You can include letters from individuals who are not faculty (religious leader, employer, coach, etc.), but you should view these letters as secondary—that is how these letters will be viewed by decision makers.
How do you ask for a letter?
Get your head together about this, because the way you ask for a letter often determines whether you get the letter or not. Here are some general rules I think you should follow:
- I think it is better to ask for a letter in person, but I understand that an email may be more efficient. The latter is especially true if it is difficult to actually make personal contact with a busy potential letter writer. It is likely your initial contact will lead to the potential letter writer asking for your resume and to schedule a meeting to discuss specifics of your application(s) (e.g., what you are applying for). Always remember that the person is under no obligation to write you a letter. They may be too busy or feel they do not know you well enough to write a letter. Be prepared for a “No” answer, and understand that if he or she agrees, they are doing you a major favor!
- I was taught that you should ask for a letter by saying “Are you able to write me a positive letter of recommendation?” The reason for the “positive” is to protect yourself. It makes clear that if the person agrees to write a letter, they also agree to write a letter that is going to work in your favor. In addition, by asking this way, you allow a potential letter writer who may have something negative to say about you to decline.
Should you waive your right to see a letter?
I feel you should always waive your right to see your letter--it works to your advantage. Some potential letter writers will not write a letter if they know you can see the letter. In addition, if you do not waive your right some admissions committee members may feel that your letter was not truthful. That is, they may feel that because the letter writer knew you could see the letter, they left out something negative.
When should you ask?
Better to ask too early than too late. My general rule is that you should ask for a letter of recommendation about a month before a due date. This gives the letter writer plenty of time to talk to you and to actually write the letter. Just so you know, the letter writer does more than write a letter. Almost all letters are submitted online as part of a longer form. This form includes a variety of questions that the letter writer must answer about you, including questions about your personality, work habits, and experiences.
What do you do after the letter is written?
I strongly believe that you need to thank your letter writers. I am not talking about a quick thank you when you leave their office. I feel you should show your appreciation for your letter writer’s time and energy by sending them a real hand-written thank you note. I know it’s probably been a long time since you wrote anything other than an email message, but I feel the effort on the part of your letter writers requires more substantial recognition. Let me add that you should inform your letter writers about the outcome of your application(s). These letter writers helped you because they believe in you, and want to know how everything turned out.
The comments of Dr. Golding and the others who post on this blog represent their own opinion and not that of the University of Kentucky.