Grad School Recommendations: Getting the Most From Your References

When you apply to any graduate school, whether medical school, an MBA program, or even a specialized degree such as an online leadership degree, the application will include multiple parts. Among the facets to any graduate school application — which almost always include transcripts, an essay, a resume and sometimes test scores —are recommendations.

Being endorsed by someone respected in your field in the form of a recommendation lets an admissions committee know that you are not only ready for advanced study, but that you also have the necessary attributes to succeed after you earn your degree. In some cases, your recommendations can mean the difference between being admitted to your first-choice program — or being waitlisted or rejected.

Because your recommendations are so important to your graduate school application, you don’t want to leave them to chance. Knowing who to approach for a recommendation, and how to approach them, can make the difference between a stellar and a lukewarm endorsement.

The Basics

As with every part of your graduate application, the first step of getting recommendations is to determine what the program wants in its candidates.Read the application and note deadlines, requirements and whether there are any special forms to use. Some programs, for example, ask for recommendations in the form of a letter, while others prefer that recommenders return a detailed form evaluating your readiness for grad school. Allow plenty of time for people to complete and return the recommendations; be up front about deadlines when you make your request and follow up as necessary. A late — or lost — recommendation could keep you out of your first-choice program, so most experts recommend making your request at least a month before the deadline.

Who to Ask for a Recommendation

Most grad school applications direct potential students to request recommendations from those who are familiar with their work, either on a professional or academic basis, and can speak to the applicant’s skills in various areas. However, to maximize your recommendations, you need to look beyond your favorite professor or the co-worker who owes you a favor.

When you’re evaluating potential references, look for those who:

  • Have experience in the field that you wish to study. For example, if you are applying to for online criminal justice degree programs, look for references that have worked law enforcement and can evaluate your potential.
  • Have seen you at your best. A poor grade on a single test or a bad day at work is probably not going to make much of a difference if your relationship with the letter-writer is good, but it’s probably no surprise that you should avoid approaching the professor whose class you skipped on a regular basis — even if he is a big name in the field. Which leads into the next piece of advice, which is…
  • Don’t only ask “names” for recommendations. While your best friend’s father might be friends with a U.S. Senator, unless that official personally knows you, you’re going to get a better recommendation from someone who is familiar with your work.
  • Finally, request recommendations from those who are more eloquent — and expressive. While it might be pleasant to talk with someone who is more understated, you want your recommendations to clearly and forcefully present who you are and why you are the best candidate for a spot in that program.

How to Ask

This is your future that you’re dealing with— do you really want to leave it to the last minute? When you’re requesting recommendations, never make the request via email. Call the person that you hope will write your letter and make your request. Offer to meet in person to discuss your goals and what you hope to gain by getting an advanced degree. This will help him or her write a letter that is tailored specifically to you.

With more applicants to top graduate programs than ever before, getting powerful references can make a big difference in your chances of admission. Plan the process and seek out the right recommenders — and when you do get that glowing review, don’t forget to send a sincere thank-you note.

About the Author: After earning a master’s in professional writing, Denise Calder returned to her university as a professor of writing. Since beginning her teaching career five years ago, she has written dozens of recommendation letters.


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