Recommendation Letters: Choosing Referees

From Tara Kuther, Ph.D.,

Nearly all applications to graduate school require at least 3 letters from individuals who can discuss your competencies in a coherent way and recommend that you be admitted to graduate school. Many students find that it is mot difficult to select persons to approach for letters of recommendation. Others aren't sure of who to approach -- or if they have a potential recommender at all. Regardless of your situation, plan ahead.

Who will you approach? Who will you consider? Remember the main criteron of the letter of recommendtion: It must provide a comprehensive and positive evaluation of your abilities and aptitude. It should not be surprising that letters from professors are highly valued by admissions committees. However, the best letters are written by faculty who know you, from whom you have taken muliple classes and/or have completed substantial projects and/or have recieved very positive evaluations.
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Professors provide insight into your academic competencies and aptitude as well as personality characteristics that may contribute to your potential to succeed in graduate school, such as motivation, conscientiousness, and timeliness.

Some students include a letter from an employer. Letters from employers are useful if you are working in a field that is related to that which you intend to study. However, even a letter from an employer in an unrelated field can be useful to your application if he or she discusses skills and competencies that will contribute to your success in graduate school, such as the abilty to read and integrate information in order to draw conclusions, lead others, or carry out complex tasks in a timely and competent fashion. Essentially it's all about spin -- spinning the material so that it matches what committees are looking for.

An effective recommendation letter is writtn by someone who meets some of the following criteria:

* Is aware of your field of interest and the schools you are applying to.
* Is able to evaluate your performance in your field of interest.
* Is able to discuss your personal characteristics
* Is able to discuss your capacity to work with others
* Can discuss your leadership skills[/li
* Can evaluate your level of professionalism (e.g., punctuality, efficiency, assertivness)
* Can discuss your academic skills -- not simply experience, but evaluate your potential to succeed in graduate-level study
* Evaluates you positively relative to others
* Has some recognition and whose judgment is highly valued within the field.
* Is able to write a good reference letter (i.e., is literate).

Many students become nervous when they see this list. Remember that no one no one person will meet all of these criteria, so don't fret or feel bad. Instead, consider all of the people who you might approach and attempt to compose a balanced panel of reviewers. Seek individuals who will collectively fulfill as many of the above criteria as possible.

The biggest mistake most students make in the recommendation letter-phase of the graduate school application is to not think about who to approach and simply settle for whoever is available. This is not the time to settle, choose the easiest path, or be impulsive. Take the time and make the effort to consider all of the possiblities -- each professor you have had and all persons you have come into contact with (e.g., employers, internship supervisors, supervisors from settings in which you have volunteered). Don't rule any one out at first, just make a long list. After you have created an exhausted list, rule out those who you know will not give you a positive recommendation. The next step is to determine how many criteria those remaining on your list might fulfill. And move on from there to begin approaching potential referees.

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