getting a good letter from supervisor

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Letters of Recommendation for Graduate School: Who Are the Best Sources?

It is now November, and if you are facing graduate-school applications deadlines anytime between mid-December and early February, it’s time to get serious about arranging for your letters of recommendation. As with the other components of a grad-school application, there are many pitfalls that must be avoided, and my goal with today’s post is to help you avoid some of them. The focus here will be on one key question: Who should be asked to provide a letter of recommendation?

College or university professors who know the student well are nearly always the most appropriate sources for letters of recommendation to support a graduate-school application. If an application requires three letters of recommendation, then it is usually best if all three letters are from professors. There are exceptions in some fields, however, and all applicants should make sure they know what is normal in their field of study. For example, someone applying to a master’s program in counseling psychology or social work should have a letter from someone who has supervised his or her volunteer work in some type of support or helping capacity. Also, some programs have special expectations when it comes to the sources for letters of recommendation, so it’s important to carefully read all instructions. For example, some clinical psychology programs ask for at least one letter from a source like that which I just described, but many do not; if they don’t specify, then all of the letters should come from professors.

The source of a letter (i.e., the “referee”) can influence it’s effectiveness in at least two ways: First, referees are expected to indicate in their letters the capacity in which they have known the student, and they should be able to demonstrate that they know the student well enough, and in an appropriate capacity, that would enable them to evaluate him or her on several relevant dimensions. A professor who taught a student in a junior-level course would be expected to have little insight into his or her true potential, whereas a professor for a senior-level course, who gave the student a very good grade for substantial written work, or for oral presentations, might be a better judge. If the student is in an Honors program with a thesis requirement, the thesis supervisor or the director of the Honors program should be in the best position to provide a comprehensive evaluation

A mistake many people make is to assume they need letters from someone who can testify that they are very smart and capable of very good academic performance. Transcripts and standardized test scores already serve that purpose, and letters of recommendation need to evaluate the applicant on dimensions that are actually more relevant to success in graduate school than a person’s scholarly abilities.

Another factor that can influence the effectiveness of a letter of recommendation is the credibility of the referee, which is related to several different factors. As already mentioned, your referees will probably be asked to indicate how long they have known you. If they have only known you for a few months, some people will assume that they probably don’t know you very well. The referee’s credibility is also related to how much academic experience he or she has; that is, how long this person has been around, and therefore, how much experience he or she has at assessing the potential of students for success in grad school. All else being equal, professors with several years of experience are generally viewed as being more highly referees. Compared to a junior faculty member who has been a professor for only a year or two, senior faculty members will have more experience writing letters of recommendation, and therefore, they may do a better job of it (although there is no guarantee of this).

Be careful not to assume too much about someone’s relevant experience from the amount of gray hair they possess. Age alone is not a reliable a predictor of how much relevant experience a potential referee has at evaluating potential graduate students and writing letters of recommendation.

It’s possible to make reasonable inferences, however, from considering a professor’s academic rank, because this is influenced, at least in part, by how long someone has been employed at a particular institution. Some colleges and universities hire part-time faculty to teach undergraduate courses on a temporary contractual basis; they may, or may not, be given the rank of adjunct professor. Regardless of how experienced (or old) a teacher for one of your introductory-level courses appears, it’s important to keep in mind that your letters for grad school should be written by people who have experience at supervising their own graduate students, and who are, therefore, more likely to know what should be in it. Full-time professors who teach and conduct research are the most likely to have the right types of experience.

Newly-hired, full-time faculty members usually have the rank of assistant professor. After a few years, most are promoted to associate professor; this promotion may be accompanied by granting of tenure. Promotion to (full) professor usually comes after several more years of strong research, teaching, and service. One can assume that an associate professor or full professor has a significant amount of experience at writing letters of recommendation for grad-school applicants.

The academic rank of a referee, while important, is still secondary to what that person has to say about you. Accordingly, the professor who knows you best will usually be your most important referee, even if that person is a junior faculty member or even a part-time instructor. One exception to this is if you are applying to a research-oriented graduate program — university and college teachers who are not active researchers are not be the best referees for evaluating your research potential.

There are obviously many important things to consider when deciding whom to ask for a letter of recommendation, beyond just a potential referee’s credibility. You have to ask people who know the right things about you! Here are some of the dimensions on which you should expect to be evaluated:

ability to work with others
ability to work alone
communication skills (both oral and written)
creativity
dedication and persistence
independence
industriousness
initiative
intellectual ability
integrity
judgment
leadership
maturity
organizational skills
originality
teaching potential
social skills

Now that you know what kinds of things are discussed in a letter of recommendation for graduate school, do you feel confident that you can get the letters of recommendation you need? Anyone out there have a question about selecting potential referees?

asking-for-a-letter-of-recommendation

How to Ask For a Letter of Recommendation

This time of year, many students are arranging for letters of recommendation to support their scholarship applications, and the same letters will again be needed for grad-school applications. This typically involves approaching two or three professors to ask for this favor. Various topics related to letters of recommendation are discussed in other articles that are posted on MyGraduateSchool.com, including one article in particular that I would strong recommend. It provides tips on how you can go about getting the most effective reference letters for grad school, but here I just want to talk about correct ways to solicit a letter. There is nothing complicated about asking someone for a letter of recommendation, but it takes a little bit of tact.

First, just send a short email to ask if he or she is willing to provide a letter. Don’t attach documents like your c.v., transcripts, or personal statement. That will come later, if you do in fact get a positive response to your request for a letter of recommendation.

Your initial email should simply explain that you will soon be applying to graduate school, and you hope they can provide a letter of recommendation for you. Indicate how many programs you are applying to and by which date the first one would be needed.

Timing is important. The right time to ask someone for a letter is about 4 or 5 weeks before you need it. That might seem like a long time, but it is customary to give professors a long time to do such things, and most will be at least a little annoyed if you ask for a letter of recommendation less than a week before you need it.

Remember, the first step only involves asking for the favor. Once you get a commitment, however, its important that you follow-up properly, which mainly involves providing the things they need to: 1) write a good letter, 2) get all copies out by the deadlines, and 3) get it all done with minimal hassle.

In another article, I cover some of the things you can do to improve the chances of a really good letter of recommendation. In a nut shell, it depends on how well, and in what capacity, the person writing the letter (i.e., the referee) knows you, but you might need to meet for a chat, or provide a copy of your personal statement, your c.v., or transcripts. Offer these things, but keep in mind that not everyone will use them. You also need to give your referees any forms and mailing envelopes. If possible, arrange to drop these things off, in person. Sometimes, a face-to-face meeting can leave a strong and positive impression that ends up being reflected in the letter of recommendation. Most importantly, however, the meeting simply gives your referees a chance to ask any questions they have. They may ask you some relevant questions about your graduate school or career plans, so be prepared to answer. Remember to thank them for their time and effort.

If it is not possible to meet in-person, for any reason, then provide all pertinent information in an email and attach any forms that are available in electronic format. Paper forms can be left for professors, as most will have an office and a mailbox, somewhere.

Make it easy for the person writing the letter. Put the addresses and deadlines of all the programs to which you are applying in a single document – if possible, on one page – and list them in the order in which the deadlines will come up. For each one, indicate whether or not there is an evaluation form to complete along with the letter. Also indicate what the referee is supposed to do once the letter is completed.

Take a look at this blog post by “thoughts on teaching” that addresses some of the special circumstances that you may have to consider when asking a referee for many letters of recommendation (5 or more).

Most programs still want the referee to either send the letter directly to the graduate school by regular mail, or else place it in a sealed and signed envelope for the student to include with the rest of the application materials. In the last few years, many graduate programs have started accepting letters of recommendation via email (verified with a digital signature), or else submitted on the program’s website. Don’t make your referee figure out what to do with each one of your letters – just tell them.

It is up to you to make sure the letters are submitted by the deadline. Send an email to your referees a few days before the deadline, just to confirm that the letters have been sent or will be ready on time. It’s not necessary to send more than one reminder, as long as you do it just a few days before the deadline. If you remind them too early, they are more likely to just put it off until another day, and perhaps end up forgetting altogether.

[ If grad school is in your plans, be sure to check out the archives, as well as my most recent posts. I realize that students face a huge information gap that makes it difficult to know what’s really involved, and that’s why I strive to provide the best information and advice about preparing for, and applying successfully to, graduate school.

I have been a professor for the past 18 years. I have been an undergraduate academic advisor, I have served on graduate admissions committees, supervised several graduate students and dozens of undergraduate students, and over the years I have had countless discussions about graduate admissions with Graduate Program Directors and other faculty members, in a wide range of disciplines and domains (sciences, social sciences, fine arts, humanities), and at universities in the U.S. and Canada. I have the perspective of a real insider into what students need to do to stand apart from the crowd, and how to avoid the mistakes that prevent most grad-school applicants from getting in.

You can spend a lot of time collecting bits of advice from all over Internet about dealing with different components of an application, or various steps in the process, but most of it is very basic information that everyone can get (thus, no one gets an advantage from knowing about it), and most of it is just recycled on different websites so that someone can sell advertising space.

The only thing you’ll ever see advertised here is my book and e-book. My main objective with the blog is to provide most accurate and actionable information and advice. I don’t get paid to do it, although if someone buys a copy of my book, or an e-book, I do make a few bucks. So far, however, that hasn’t exactly been happening a lot. So, rest assured, I’m not doing this for the money! ]

will-your-letters-of-recommendation-be-as-good-as-you-think

Letters of Recommendation for Graduate School: Will Yours Be As Good As You Think?

Last week, a student came into my office for some academic advising. She is in the last year of her B.A. program, and getting ready to deal with grad-school applications. She had a few straightforward questions, and at one point, I asked if she knew who would be providing letters of recommendation for her. She replied that her Honor’s thesis supervisor had already agreed to write one, and that there were a few other professors she could ask.

 

It turns out that she had taken some advice I gave her a couple of years back and had been volunteering her time to help some of her professors with their research. This is something I often advise students to do. They get valuable experience, and importantly, they make themselves known to people who can provide useful mentoring, and a letter of recommendation for graduate school and scholarship applications.

 

But, the more this student told me about her “volunteer research experience”, the more I realized that she had failed to understand at least one essential point, and as a result, probably also failed to set up any good letters recommendation from her “efforts.”

 

Her mistake? She actually repeated it each time she was given one of these opportunities from a professor. She would never commit enough time over a sufficiently long period to make herself useful to any of those professors, and it never really occurred to her that a professor might be expecting something in return for helping her out and giving her a chance. If none of them felt like they gained from having her around, they are not likely to write an effective letter of recommendation. One of more of those individuals would probably agree to write a letter if she came to them and explained that she had no one else to ask. So, she would almost certainly end up with ineffective letters if she persisted with those professors. The worse thing about it is that those were the people she had been hoping to impress when she originally showed interest in their work.

 

Volunteering as an assistant to someone’s research may fail to produce a helpful letter of recommendation for other reasons, too. One particular situation can occur when for some reason or another a professor feels that he or she is too important to spend time with undergraduate research volunteers, so instead of providing any useful guidance or feedback to the student, the professor hands these students off to their graduate students to deal with. Typically, the volunteer will end up working for the graduate student, often on those tasks or duties that the grad student doesn’t like to do (such as data entry or other clerical-like work).

 

After several months, the professor doesn’t even know him or her, other than to recognize his or her name and face. Again, this professor may be unable to provide an effective letter of recommendation, but that does not mean that they will not agree to write a letter for the student. Many letters of recommendation are ineffective, even though they only say positive things about the student. For more information on obtaining good letters of recommendation, check out this article in wrote for MyGraduateSchool.com

The point is simple, and it should also be kind of obvious: It’s not enough to volunteer! You also have to make yourself useful and memorable in positive ways, in the process. A good letter of recommendation is only possible if the professor you are trying to help actually learns good things about you through your interactions. It’s just as easy – in fact, easier – to set up a lousy letter of recommendation from a professor whom you volunteer to help.