Grad School Application: Letters of Recommendation

Most grad school applications require three or more letters of recommendation. First, you have to decide on at least three people who are not related to you who will provide a letter to help convince the school that you’re the best choice for their program. A lot of sources

Netscher, Caspar - The Man Writing a Letter - ...

recommend asking at least one extra in case someone backs out on you or something goes wrong with their letter submission. Try to choose people who are in positions of leadership or may be recognized by the admissions board as having some authority to recommend a brilliant new student.

Who to Choose

Since I was not long removed from the real estate business, I asked the owner and manager (now the owner of his own company) of the company where I used to work to ask for letters. I got my third letter from my millionaire-author-investor-financial mentor and part-time employer. Even though most sources say to call your letter writers to ask them for the favor in person, I KNOW these guys. They are all email junkies. So I emailed them, taking care to add a little honest flattery as to why I had chosen them for this “honor”. I made sure to include the time frame in which I was needing the letter (about 30 days) and reassurance that I’d send them ample information to assist them in the process. Fortunately for me, they each immediately accepted with reasonable enthusiasm.

Give Them the Tools They Need

You want to make the letter writing process as simple and painless as possible to result in letters that are (1) Quality letters with positive impact on your grad school application, and (2) Successfully submitted ON TIME.  I found the best way to accomplish this is to follow-up on your promise to provide your letter-writers with the information they need to successfully complete the task. Send a second email or fax with this helpful information:

INFORMATION ABOUT YOU

So I started by, you guessed it, MAKING A LIST of all the reasons I was a good choice for the SLP Master’s degree program, my accomplishments in life and in business and my goals for the future. (KEEP THIS LIST! You’ll want to reference it when you start writing your Personal Statement/Goal Statement.) I also made a point of noting the time period in which I had worked for that person so they wouldn’t have to do any unnecessary research.

INFORMATION ABOUT YOUR INTENDED FIELD OF STUDY

Next, I put together a sheet of information about the kind of work I’d be doing as an SLP and what kind of characteristics were required. This was easily acquired from the department’s site within my school’s website, where I found a mission statement and student handbook specific to my degree. I figured it would be easier for them to write a letter about why I’m a great fit for this degree if they knew by what criteria I would be judged. Your letter writers may not be familiar with what your new career is all about. Give them a one page outline of what you’ll be doing with that degree. Include key phrases from the school’s information so they’ll be more likely to hit the hot button characteristics in their writing and catch the attention of the decision-makers. It’s also an excellent exercise to confirm for yourself that, YES, you ARE a great fit for this kind of work. Or not.

PROVIDE EXAMPLES OF WHAT IS EXPECTED

Finally, I found tips for writing a good letter of recommendation and sample letters online that seemed to fit a graduate student situation. They all commented later as to how helpful it was to have other letters to use as a guide as to the difference between a good letter and a poor one. I emailed all these items to my letter writers with a mild reminder as to the due date. (I had 60 days until the application deadline, but I asked them to have it done in 30 to allow time for error.)

FOLLOW-UP

I sent a follow-up email about a week later to “make sure they had received the materials I sent to help in their letter writing and see if they had any questions”, really meant to be a reminder that the letter needed to be done since they’re all pretty busy guys.

Another week later I send another email with instructions from the school on how to submit their letter to the school’s online application system. These instructions should have reached them via email directly from the school already, but I didn’t want to chance the school’s email ending up my writers’ spam folders. It also served as a good reminder for them to do my letter.

The third week into my 30 day time frame I sent a reminder directly from the school’s online application system, a very handy feature. I have to say I liked the online application process. The progress of the entire application was easy to track. I could see what requirements had been fulfilled and which items remained before I could finally click the “SUBMIT” button. It allowed me to see who had sent their letter in and when it had been received. If no letter had been received, it would send them a reminder email with one simple click by me. I believe I even had the option to review the letters and decide if they would be included in my application. You even pay your application fee online.

Message in the bottle

Message in the bottle (Photo credit: funtik.cat)

Amazingly enough, the value of the internet submission was the one point I had to impress upon my writers. By this time, I had met one of my writer’s in person to review his rough draft and had one of the others read his to me over the phone. It was truly amazing to hear how highly they spoke of me. I was a little stunned. These two were ready to submit their letters, but their first instinct was that it would have greater impact if they mailed it in on their letterhead.

Generally I’d agree that paper letters, especially hand-written ones, make a much bigger impression than one typed into a form. The catch was that it wasn’t what the school wanted. They didn’t want a bunch of hand-written letters to process. It explicitly said on the website and application, several times, that hand-written letters would slow down the processing of your application by 2-4 weeks and requested that you make every effort to have the letters submitted online.

My writers were understanding once I made them aware of the potential harm to be done by submitting their letter the old-fashioned way. The real saving grace that became an acceptable compromise to my writers was that the letters could be uploaded as a PDF file, so their nicely formatted, letterhead-adorned masterpiece would still be seen in its intended form not altered by evil computer glitches. Lesson to be learned, be very clear on your school’s submission requirements and keep regular communication with your writers.

Of course, please remember to follow-up with a thank you note (hand-written, not an email) and let them know when you get accepted into your grad program. They will appreciate the chance to beam with pride and share in your sense of accomplishment as reward for their efforts.

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