A recommendation letter is pretty much what it sounds like – a letter from someone who recommends that you be admitted as a student to a graduate program. Admissions committees use recommendation letters to get an idea of the individual behind GPAs and standardized test scores, and of how well the applicant performed in other academic settings.
An effective letter of recommendation has these qualities:
– It comes from a credible person. The writer knows you (as a student, colleague, employee, etc.) and knows something about the field or program you’re applying to (a professor understands what’s expected of graduate students; a manager with an MBA or a supervisor with an MSW understand both graduate school and the world of work). Graduate programs often specify that one or more of your recommendation letters should come from a professor you studied with. That’s because they want to hear about you from someone who is qualified to discuss your intellectual ability and academic performance. (This can be an intimidating requirement for older applicants who haven’t kept in touch with their undergraduate professors. One way around this is to take some graduate courses on a non-degree basis at a local college or university, and ask those teachers to write letters for you.)
– It says specific things about you. The writer should know you well enough to be able to say specific things about your work, interests, and potential. Help your letter writers by reminding them of work you did – that paper you did for their class on the history of the oil industry, or your performance in designing and implementing a customer satisfaction survey. Resist, at all cost, any temptation to get a prominent person who barely knows you to write a letter on your behalf. At best you’ll get an impersonal letter, which is as bad as none. Worse, the admissions committee may spot the letter for the ruse it is and write you off as a pathetic boob.
– It answers the admissions committee’s questions. The instructions to letter writers will have general questions for the writer to answer (“What do you think of the applicant’s potential for graduate study?”) Obviously, you want a letter writer who will answer those questions, rather than use the letter as an opportunity to expound on their pet theory. But you also want someone who can write to unspoken questions the admissions committee may have specifically about you – for example, whether the fact that English is your second language was any barrier to you as a student, or whether the fact that you took five years to complete your undergraduate degree says anything about your motivation or ability to focus. It will help your letter writers enormously if you think about what questions might come up with your application, and tell them what it would be helpful for them to mention.
– It is submitted on time and in keeping with requested procedures. An enthusiastic letter of reference is of no help to you if it arrives too late for the committee’s consideration, or in an unsealed envelope, or without the cover sheet signed by you. Be considerate of your letter writers, too. Don’t put them in a situation where they have 48 hours to write and submit a recommendation letter, or have to figure out how to submit a letter from a field research station in Namibia.
– It benefits from groundwork laid by a smart, organized, and considerate applicant. Make it easy for you recommender to write a good letter for you. Tell them what program or programs you’re applying to, why, and what your hopes and preferences are. Tell them what questions, qualities, or achievements you would like their letter to address. Remind them of specific accomplishments they can mention. Offer to send them copies of papers or other relevant material, if you can, to refresh their memory. Give them plenty of time to think about, write, and submit a letter. And don’t forget to thank them for their help – when they agree to write the letter, and again when you’ve gotten into your program.