referees

Are you Applying To Graduate School? Think Beyond Your Grades… Way Beyond

Are you applying to graduate school or professional school? Not worried because you have excellent grades? That’s great, but you still need other things going for you if you want to get into graduate school.

Successful applicants usually do several things that the unsuccessful applicants don’t do. Most students submit all the required components of their application (i.e., transcripts, standardized test scores, a personal statement, letters of recommendation, application fees, etc.) and then sit back and hope for the best. This passive approach almost always ends in failure!

Think Beyond Your Grades… Way Beyond.

The most common misconception that students have when applying to grad school is this belief that outstanding grades are all one needs to get into graduate school. It’s simply not true! Many students mistakenly assume that admission to graduate school depends on surpassing some minimum grade-point requirement. The idea makes a lot of sense – after all, it is the main qualification for admission to a bachelors-degree program at most colleges or universities. But the truth is, the criteria for getting into graduate school are numerous and varied.

Grades definitely are important, but so are many other factors. Admission to graduate school is not an entitlement that comes with even the best grade point average (GPA). Success in graduate school requires much more than just academic ability, and the people who decide who gets in and who gets rejected are well aware of this fact.

It is beyond the scope of this article to discuss all the factors that determine the success or failure of a graduate school applicant, but many of them are perceived character attributes of the applicant – such as maturity, ability to work with others, independence, and many others.

Whether your application is successful often depends on whether you are perceived to be a potential asset to the graduate advisor (the professor who supervises your Ph.D. work). Most (but not all) professors learn through experience that they prefer working with certain types of people, and prefer to avoid certain other types of people at all costs!

In most graduate programs, if the professor you want to have as a graduate advisor does not want you as his or her student, then you will not be accepted into the program. It is as simple as that. Professors are not forced to work with any student they do not wish to work with, so you need to convince them that they would be better off with you than with one of the other applicants.

The letters of recommendation (aka reference letters) you get to support your applications to graduate school will be the main source of information about you as a person.

Your grades say nothing about the kind of person you are, at least not along the dimensions that matter. Are there two or three professors (aka referees) at your school who know you well enough that they could convince someone else that you have the right stuff? If you do that’s great, but what if you don’t have any or not enough referees? What’s your plan for finding some? You have to get yourself out there and in the situations where you can be evaluated so that you can get the letters you need. Read this blog post on how to find valuable volunteer or research experience in preparation for grad school or professional school.

Even if you have an outstanding GPA and the highest grades in your graduating class, you cannot afford to be complacent or overconfident in your approach to graduate school application. Your outstanding grades are no guarantee that you will be accepted into the graduate program of your choice…or even into any graduate program at all!

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Applicant-Evaluation Forms: Even More Important than the Reference Letters

Still on the topic of reference letters (a.k.a. letters of recommendation), today I have a few comments about the evaluation forms that the person providing a letter (the referee) is expected to fill out and attach to the letter. Almost any graduate-school application includes such an evaluation form. Typically, the form has a few questions about what the referee thinks of the applicant’s abilities and potential. For the most part, these questions pertain to the same things that a good letter writer would put into his or her letter, anyway. So, the fact that there is an evaluation form like this is neither surprising nor worrying for most grad-school applicants; most assume that their referees have very good opinions about them.

There is another part to most evaluation forms, however, which most first-time applicants do not anticipate, and thus a lot of them suddenly get very nervous when they discover it. It is a list of general characteristics, abilities, or tendencies, on which the referee is asked to rank the applicant relative to an appropriate comparison group (such as all senior undergraduates they have known during their career, for example). For each characteristic, ability, or tendency listed, the referee places a checkmark to indicate a rough percentile ranking for the applicant within the comparison group. For example, the referee may indicate whether the applicant ranks in the top 2%, 10%, 25%, or 50% within the group; there is usually also an  “unable to judge” category. The same ranking scale used for each attribute.

Some of the attributes or dimensions on which applicants are commonly ranked include: critical thinking, analytical thinking, communication skills (oral and written), integrity, judgment, organizational skills, work habits, interpersonal and leadership abilities, maturity, ability to work with others, ability to work independently, originality, ability to adapt to changing conditions or unexpected events, motivation toward a successful and productive career.

This is not an exhaustive list, by any means, and different programs have their own particular subset of such attributes on their evaluation form, but most will have variants of at least a few listed here. There is some variability across disciplines in terms of what tends to be on evaluation forms, but not much.

(You can see an example of a graduate-applicant evaluation form at the very end of this PDF file, which is used by many of the graduate programs at Concordia University).

Why does this part of the evaluation form cause students so much anxiety? For starters, many are quite surprised to discover the kinds of things on which they will be ranked, and they doubt that their referees know them well enough to make a ranking on most of the attributes. After all, does a professor who taught you a few classes and always gave you excellent marks, liked your essays, and with whom you have a friendly and chatty relationship, really have any basis for ranking you in terms of ability to work with others, critical thinking, leadership abilities, or integrity? In most cases, it’s not likely. At least, not if that’s the only capacity in which the professor has known you. (Typically, the form will also ask referees to indicate the capacity in which they have known you – such as, teacher, academic advisor, research supervisor, for example).

The point I’m hoping to make clear is that the fate of your graduate-school applications may depend a lot on how well you set up your letters of recommendation – that is, whether you do enough beyond your coursework to prepare for letters of recommendation from academic sources (ie., professors). By discussing these evaluation forms, I’m hoping to give you a better idea of what your referees will be expected to consider when writing a letter of reference for you. Hopefully, this will help you decide whether you have done enough to prepare for these recommendations, and whether the individuals you are asking to provide them are appropriate in terms of how well they know you. Remember, you’ll need at least two and maybe three of these letters. They must come from the right people, and those people will not only be describing things about you that they think are relevant, they will also be ranking you on personal dimensions that the graduate schools care most about. If you are getting worried and you want to know more about arranging to have the most effective letters of recommendation, I recommend this article that I wrote for another valuable grad school-related website called MyGraduateSchool.com

You may be wondering, … How important are these rankings? And how do they come into play when decisions are made about who gets in and who doesn’t. Let’s just say, they are extremely important – in fact, in most cases, even more influential than the reference letter!

I’m sure that last statement comes as surprise to many, but it is true. How the referee ranks the student within a relevant comparison group is usually more decisive than the actual content of the reference letter. It’s not difficult to understand why, once you understand the purpose of the rankings, and how admissions committees and prospective graduate supervisors use them.

Here is the logic behind why referees are requested to provide these rankings:

Other than requesting referees to comment on the applicant’s abilities or potential in specific areas, graduate schools have no control over what kinds of things a particular referee decides to include in his or her letter. Not surprisingly, there ends up being a lot of variability among the letters in terms of what things are commented on. All letters will generally say positive things about the applicant, but how are we to compare different positive comments, about different attributes, and from different people? If two letters discuss relevant albeit different things about two applicants, and both use similar superlatives, how is one to decide which letter makes a stronger endorsement? Not only that, but the two referees will also have their own style of letter writing; perhaps one of them makes liberal use of superlatives when describing their favorite students, whereas the other reserves the use of such words for only the most truly exceptional students. Not only that, but two different people reading the same letter may be left with somewhat different impressions, if not in kind, at least in magnitude. Think about how difficult all these foregoing factors make the task of discriminating between applicants on the strength of their reference letters. It is hard enough for one person to discriminate between applicants this way – how are the different members of an admissions committee supposed to compare their assessments of different applicants’ letters?

The main purpose of the evaluation form is to ensure that all referees provide assessment on a common set of attributes, using a somewhat objective scale, so as to get around the problems of ‘comparing apples and oranges’ inherent in reference letters. By requesting that referees rank the applicant on specific attributes, the graduate schools get information about the things that matter most to them. Everyone understands what it means to indicate that the student is judged to be among the top 2% versus among only the top 10%, or the top 25%.

Its easy to see how the rankings ‘level the playing field’ a bit, because they supposedly yield comparable information about each applicant. As I already mentioned, the ranking also provide the graduate program with some control over what attributes are actually assessed by the referees, because reference letters are not uniform in that respect. And there is still another way in which the rankings are of great utility for the members of an admissions committee or a professor: The rankings can be a major time-saver for some, by providing a concise and ready overview of how the referee views the student’s potential.

Someone faced with a large pile of applications to go through may only bother to carefully read the reference letters for students who have been rated by their referees as being among the best on all, or at least most, of the important dimensions. The rankings actually provide most of the information needed from the referee, and a letter of reference is generally used mainly to substantiate the basis for high rankings. (Yes, I am implying here that many of the reference letters written for grad-school applicants are never read. Instead of implying, let me just be explicit and tell you that many of the reference letters written for grad-school applicants are never read).

Keep in mind that different people have their own ways of completing a ranking form, and admissions committees and experienced professors all know this. Some professors consistently provide overly high rankings, placing virtually every student for whom they have written a letter of reference in the top 5%. Different professors will be more stringent, or honest, or discriminating, in their rankings. No doubt, the practice of evaluation-by-ranking is not without its pitfalls, but it’s probably true that no method of assessing a graduate-school applicant is ever going to be perfect.

Although you have no direct control over how a referee ranks you on a form, you do have control over whom you ask for a letter of reference, and if there is still enough time before you will need them, you might also have some control over how well your referees know you and how highly they are able to rank you on key dimensions. Now that you know about the evaluation forms and the importance of these rankings, are you confident that you have asked the right people to provide your reference letters?

And another thing…

In most cases, the evaluation form has a section that the student needs to fill out before giving it to the referee. It’s just basic information, like the name of the applicant and the specific program to which he or she is applying. It goes without saying that you need to properly fill out this section before giving the form to your referee. Still, it’s surprising how often students omit some of the pertinent information, such as the particular program. This can be annoying for the referee, who may be uncertain of exactly what the student is intending, and it can hamper the ability of the referee to customize the letter according to the specific program.

If there is more than one page to the evaluation form, look for a place at the top of the second page (and any subsequent page) where you are supposed to indicate your name and the anticipated program of study. In my experience, students are just as likely to miss this on the second page of a form, as they are likely to actually fill it in. That’s right – about half of people fail to fill it in! Is it because they think the referee is supposed to do it? It’s not the referee’s responsibility. It is yours. So be sure to fill in your information on every page that has a place for it. Failing to do so can make you seem careless.

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! ]