Having strong recommendation letters is crucial to your application, and often even more important to your success than your application essays. While your application essay demonstrates your analytical thinking and writing skills, an outside perspective can speak to your work ethic and competencies. As an applicant, you are not in a position to give a fair assessment of your own performance—this can only be done by someone who has monitored you and had the opportunity to develop their own opinion about your capabilities over a period of time. Furthermore, when you begin a graduate program, it is likely that you will enter into a mentor-mentee relationship. It is important to future mentors that you are able to have such a professional relationship with scholars.
For your graduate school application, recommenders should be restricted to faculty (i.e., no coaches, bosses, friends or family). Your conduct in a professional academic environment is the only thing that your recommender should be speaking for. Here are five essential things to consider when selecting your recommender.
1. With whom have you had a long-lasting relationship?
Pick someone who has known you for a significant amount of time. It will be difficult for an admissions officer to trust a source that has not had enough time to get to know you. A college invites you to learn, contribute, and grow in its environment over the course of four years—someone who has only known you for two months cannot honestly vouch for your long-term capabilities.
2. Who can endorse your interpersonal skills?
Your ability to work with others as well as your ability to assume responsibility as a leader are essential skills in graduate school. When selecting your recommenders, be sure that at least one of them can attest to these specific character traits that have directly lead to some form of quantitative or qualitative impact. When you first attend a graduate program, you are joining a small tight-knit team and network of people—interpersonal skills are vital to your success in such a community.
3. Who has been a witness to your successes?
Try to think about the things that you are especially good at. Were you a team-leader in any circumstance? Have you shown great sportsmanship or teamwork qualities? Have you had exceptionally high marks in any class? You want a recommender that will mention your remarkable qualities without the necessity of a prompt. Also, be sure that your recommender will be able to highlight specific instances where you displayed these capabilities, and that these were your unique capabilities. You want to think of instances where you singularly displayed your positive attributes, and ways in which these qualities set you apart from other students or peers.
You should be sure to think about some specific incidents where you have proven yourself to be highly competent. Did you tutor somebody and help them achieve their goals? Was something new possible in a extracurricular activity as a direct result of your efforts? If so, a professor or supervisor who witnessed such an achievement is a good person to approach for a recommendation.
4. Who has been a witness to your failures?
While you should be careful not to choose a recommender who would only have negative things to say about you, you do want to find someone who has seen you face and overcome adversity. Initial failure followed by eventual success displays perseverance, drive, and personal growth. Try to think of a time when you were not naturally good at something, and success only came after a great deal of effort and hard work. It is easy to succeed through natural talent, but a true testament to one’s character is the ability to overcome a challenge that was not immediately met with success. A witness to such “failures” can often prove to be the best recommender. Needless to say, be careful not to reveal moments that might indicate a lapse of good judgement—you are still trying to present yourself in the best possible light.
5. Who is capable of writing well on your behalf?
It is also important to consider the writing capabilities of your recommenders. Make sure you choose someone who you know is a diligent, detail-oriented, and articulate person. This letter represents you; a poorly written letter will inadequately represent you. Pick someone who is willing to spend a decent amount of time writing your recommendation and who can compose a well-structured, well thought-out letter.
Sometimes, even people that seem articulate compose letters that do not accurately portray your achievements. Many recommenders use vague or general terms (e.g. “this student is good at” or “he has proven himself many times”) that do nothing to enhance your credibility. You want them to cite specific instances or examples proving—not claiming—that you would be an excellent and worthwhile addition to the university’s student body. Also, you do not want a recommender that tends to use abstract or flowery language. Make sure that they are writing a letter that is catered to your strengths and is extremely lucid. If you feel that there is one person who could be an excellent recommender but does not have the ability to put into words his or her positive regard of you, provide them with an outline and our guide to aid them in the process.
In a Nutshell: Choose Wisely
Keeping this post’s lessons in mind, you should be able to select a recommender who can speak positively in support of your application. The best recommenders tend to be those who can be mentors: professors with whom you have developed relationships, guidance counselors, work supervisors, etc. It is also especially helpful to find a recommender who is qualified to speak for your potential in and passion for your interest field. If you do not have this sort of mentor-mentee relationship with anyone, simply think of someone who has witnessed you achieve, excel, overcome adversity, or outperform. It is important that you put substantial thought into selecting your recommender and choose someone with whom you have a strong personal relationship. Do not pick a professor whom you have only known for one semester, or whose class you only once earned a good grade in. Select someone with whom you have worked extensively, who has noticed your value and contribution, and who is able to write confidently and lucidly on your behalf.