What makes a good letter of recommendation?
Picking out who should write letters of recommendation for you is only the first step in getting good letters. Check out my previous blog for information about picking letter writers. The next step is to think about how to make the letters as strong as possible. In general, most of the letters of recommendation that we get say fairly positive things about the applicant. However, when we get a letter of recommendation that says very substantial and positive things about an applicant, that can be key to giving us stronger information. For example, a letter that comes in and says, "John Doe took my class last fall and did quite well - receiving a final grade of an A," is a good letter. However, an even better letter might say, "John Doe took my class last fall and was one of the shining students in his work. His final project went above and beyond the assignment, and demonstrated graduate level thinking and understanding. He easily received an A in my class, and I highly recommend him for a graduate program in Information.â€?
So, how can you help your letter writers to remember you, and to write such strong letters? There are a few ways that you can do this. First, if you are planning on going to grad school early enough, begin by networking with people who could write strong letters for you. If you are in school, plan on going to office hours to get to know the faculty who are teaching you. Tell them about your graduate school hopes, and ask them about things they found important in graduate school. It is important that your letter writers know who you are, and about your excitement for graduate school. If you are currently working, you will want to do similar things. If you are planning on asking mentors to write letters for you, it will be important for them to know about your graduate school goals, and to support those goals. Also, if you are able, try to stay in contact with faculty who were influential for you while you were in school. You never know when a letter from them might be a perfect fit for your application.
I often recommend that when you ask someone for a letter of recommendation, that you come prepared with some highlights of your strengths that you could provide to them. For example, when you ask someone to write you a letter, you can let them know why you thought they would be a good writer for you. For example, you may want to say, "I wanted you to write this letter for me because I have been in three of your classes and gotten A's in all three. You and I have often talked about my graduate school interests, and you have let me know that you think I would be a good candidate because of the quality of work that I do. You also have felt that my community service directly relates to the field that I am interested in." This is just an example, but I find that any direct input that you can give to a letter writer can be helpful. I know some students come prepared with thank you notes to their recommenders that highlight some of the strengths they are hoping the writers may comment on. You may also want to share with the writer what you think the admissions committee values. For example, here at SI, we value both academic background and skills, as well as practical experiences or a connection to our mission.
In general, the more connected you are to a recommender, the better your letter will be. Be sure to give your writers plenty of time to submit their letters of recommendation, and remember that if you have any questions, you can always email us to find out more information.
Who should write my letters of recommendation?
Figuring out who should write letters of recommendation in your application can be difficult. Should they be professional references, academic references, or some sort of a combination? These are really common questions, and it does vary depending on what school you are applying to, and what their expectations are. It is important to talk to each school to get a sense of their expectations for your letters of recommendation before you get started. Here at SI, we are looking for letters of recommendation that are professional or academic, and can tell us something specific about your capabilities and skills. It is ok to have a blend of both academic or professional, or to have all your letters be just academic or just professional. The key to remember is that you don't want to have personal references, but rather people who have taught you, or supervised you, or seen your work and skills up close.
The best rule of thumb in picking out writers is to think about who knows you best. Finding people who can share really specific details about your skills is important. If you are planning ahead, a good idea is to make connections with people who would be good letter writers for you, and to talk to them about your future graduate school plans. For example, if you are a student, plan on going to office hours whenever possible to make strong connections with some of your faculty. Then, when you ask them to write letters for you, they will know who you are and can comment about your skills in a specific way. If you are currently in a work environment, try to identify some people who can be mentors for you, and who can connect you to different opportunities. People in these types of roles, usually have the ability to write great letters. We highlight some additional information about who should write letters for you, and how to submit them on our Web site.
Finally, I want to be clear that we would be happy to talk about this with you personally. If you are struggling trying to figure out what the best combination of letters might be for you, send us an email, or call us at 734-763-2285, and we can start talking with you about your personal situation. In general, we require 3 letters of recommendation, but we could take an extra one if you feel that it would balance your packet in some way. Please let us know your questions, and we are happy to talk with you more.