An effective letter of recommendation provides a portrait of who you are beyond your college grades or entrance exam scores. Committees rely on the letter of recommendation not only to validate what you have written in your application, but also to gather information about your personality, character, and motivation for your chosen field.
Before Asking for a Letter
Before approaching faculty or employers for letters of recommendation, reflect on how these letters can strengthen your application.
- List the qualities that the graduate program is looking for in an applicant. For example, the program may be looking for mature students who have had experiences in unfamiliar environments, or for someone who can work independently with little supervision. Medical schools seek students who can handle a science-intense curriculum, but who have also shown evidence of compassion and strong motivation for medical careers. In order to get a sense of what an employer or graduate school is looking for in a candidate, think about who succeeds in the program or job you are seeking.
- Who do you know who can positively comment on these relevant personal qualities? Ideally, your letter writer should be someone who knows you well, is involved with the career you are considering, can compare you to other applicants, and is very enthusiastic about supporting your application.
- If you need to provide several letters of recommendation, consider how each letter can fill different needs and request letters from individuals who know you in different contexts and can comment on different strengths. A psychology professor can comment on your intellectual curiosity, academic skills, and participation in class, while an internship supervisor can comment on your patience with children, your creativity, etc.
- What would you like someone to include in the letter that may be missing in the rest of your application? Who can comment on your professional behavior? Your maturity? Did you take a particularly challenging sequence of courses that is not necessarily obvious from your transcript? Are there extenuating circumstances that might account for atypical grades?
- Decide whether you want to waive your right to see the letter of recommendation. For many employers and graduate programs, confidential letters have greater credibility and are assigned greater weight in the application process. Interestingly, many letter writers are less inhibited in praising an applicant when the letter is confidential.
- Allow plenty of "turnaround time." Be sure the letter writer has the opportunity to write a thoughtful, complete letter without worrying about an unrealistic deadline.
When Asking for a Letter
After deciding which individuals can provide the most positive and most complete picture of your relevant skills, experiences, and character traits, make an appointment to meet with each of the potential writers.
- Ask the letter writer if she feels comfortable writing a letter to support your application. If she seems hesitant or ambivalent, thank her for her time but do not request a letter from this individual. It is crucial that the person writing your letter is positive about your application and conveys that in her letter. If a letter is lukewarm or negative, it can reflect poorly on your ability to judge how you appear to others as well as give the employer or graduate program feedback that you did not intend to convey.
- The letter of recommendation will be especially effective if the writers describe specific examples and instances whenever possible. So, provide each letter writer with information relevant to your experience and application. This could be a resume, a personal statement, a reminder of particular incidents or discussions, etc. Spend some time with the letter writer discussing how this information relates to your application. Let him know what would be helpful to include in the letter. Consider whether the writer can comment on any of the following topics:
- Intellectual ability; rank as compared with Harvard and non-Harvard students, this year and/or previous years.
- Follow through on assignments, rigor of academic program.
- Depth of involvement and achievement in work, lab, volunteer, extracurricular activities.
- Ability to communicate both in person and in writing.
- Maturity, emotional stability, concern for people, problem-solving skills, tenacity in reaching goals, curiosity, creativity, capacity for leadership, self-discipline, integrity.
- Response to criticism, ability to relate to others, capacity for collaborative work with others, attitudes toward supervision.
- Motivation and potential for success in career.
After Asking for a Letter
Don't forget to thank the person writing your letter by sending a thank-you note. Let her know the outcome of your application. Not only could her letter make the difference in whether or not you are accepted, you most likely will want to ask her for letters again in the future.