From the monthly archives: October 2010

Committee on Admissions members read a lot of recommendations.  Really a lot.  Good letters, bad letters, helpful letters, useless letters.  Letters that gush on for ten pages.  Letters that get the applicant’s name wrong.  You name it, we see it.  Every single year.

The Fletcher application asks you to submit three recommendations, at least one of which should be from a professor or other official (such as a dean) familiar with your academic work.  Younger applicants (and PhD program applicants) may want to submit two academic recommendations.  The remaining one (or two — particularly for those with more work experience) should come from someone familiar with your professional work, generally a supervisor.  If you’re not yet ready to reveal your grad school plans at work, a past supervisor is the best substitute.  So long as we see three letters, the choice is yours.

In that context, how can you, the applicant, control this most uncontrollable element of your application?  Perhaps surprisingly, there’s much you can do to ensure that your recommendation letters shine, such as…

Start early! Everyone is busy, and you want to be sure to give your recommender as much time as possible to write your letters.

Choose carefully! Think hard about whom you should ask.  A professor who gave you an A is always a good choice, but the professor who gave you a B, but saw you emerge as a scholar, might be an even better choice.  And whomever you chose, be sure to give them the opportunity to decline to write.  Whether they feel they can’t write a favorable letter, or they simply don’t have the time, your application will suffer if they send in something negative or sloppy.

Be organized! Make sure your recommenders have all the information they need.  Will they be mailing a letter?  Or uploading it to a form?  Make sure you provide the links and envelopes they need.  And remember to be very clear about the deadlines for each of your schools.

Provide info! Your professor or boss can always write a generic letter, but the best recommendations will be tailored around your objectives for grad school and future career.

Send thanks! Yes, writing recommendations is part of a professor’s work, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t write a sincere note of thanks.  Once you know your results, you should also let the recommenders know — particularly those who routinely write grad school recommendations.  It will help them in their advising.

And here are a couple more suggestions:  If there’s a particular gap or flaw in your undergraduate record that can be explained by your professor, ask your professor to explain it.  Those letters can be so helpful to us!  Yes, you told us why you received poor grades in that semester, but it’s much more convincing when the professor tells us.

Finally, remember to track the progress of your recommendation writers and provide gentle but timely reminders.  Any supportive recommender would prefer to be reminded of the upcoming deadlines than to learn, too late, that the deadlines have passed.

Later in the week, I’ll post some suggestions for your recommenders.  Meanwhile, please use the comments space to share your questions or your tips for lining up strong recommendations.

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