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Eye on Psi Chi: Winter 2012

Requesting a Great Letter of Recommendation
Susan Amato-Henderson, PhD, Michigan Technological University

This is the time of year when many faculty are busy writing letters of recommendation for their graduating students applying for jobs or continuing education programs. From both perspectives (the referee and the student seeking the recommendation), it can be a challenging time. Thus, I decided to focus this column on the things that students can do at this point in time to increase the likelihood of getting great letters of recommendation and securing employment or gaining acceptance (and hopefully a stipend!) in a graduate program. Hopefully, you have laid the groundwork to establish a relationship with the referee, and have left the referee with a good impression of your motivation, skills, intelligence, etc. All of those things are very important but will not be the focus of this column. Instead, I will provide you with suggestions for requesting a recommendation and providing your referee with all of the information needed to write a strong letter of recommendation.

Requesting a Letter of Recommendation
Ideally, you can schedule an appointment with your desired referee to request a letter of recommendation. It is VERY important to ask the desired referee "Do you feel as though you could write me a strong letter of recommendation?” If their response is lukewarm or they suggest you should find someone who knows you better, thank them for their honesty and move on. There is NOTHING worse than a mediocre letter of recommendation.

Provide the Referee With a Wealth of Information
Writing strong letters of recommendation requires that the referee has knowledge about you and your goals. Provide the referee with the following items:

  • A copy of the personal statement/application essay response that you will submit with your application.
  • A copy of your curriculum vita (CV).
  • A list of all interactions that you have had with the referee (courses taken and grades earned, any special projects or assignments you did well on, projects that you served as a research assistant, etc.)
  • Your overall GPA, last 2 years GPA, major GPA and GRE scores (if this information is not in your CV)
  • A statement of what you perceive to be your strengths and weaknesses related to your goals. Referees are often asked to address an applicant’s weaknesses, so this will assist with that request. Provide evidence of your strengths (e.g., if you list leadership as a strength, you should provide leadership positions held or organizational achievements that you have contributed to). For each weakness (and you should provide two or three), it is critical to state how you have grown or learned from an experience in which you didn’t do well, or the "positive” that results from the weakness. For example, if a weakness is that people perceive you as shy, the positive is that you have great listening skills! The goal with this is to minimize weaknesses, or show that you have overcome them.
  • A document that contains information about each of the programs/jobs in which you have applied. I have provided a sample table (left) given to me by a student applying to several graduate programs.

In sum, you want to "arm” your referees with all of the information that they will need to write a strong letter and submit it in a timely fashion. Provide your referees with all of the above materials and also ask them if they will need anything else to complete the task. Some will request that you provide addressed envelopes; others may ask you to provide a reminder one week before each deadline.

While many of your application materials are objective in nature (GPA, GRE scores, etc.), letters of recommendation from informed referees can highlight things often not measured via traditional objective measures, such as your motivation for a career in the given area or a stark improvement in your grades once you switched your major from biology to psychology. Strong letters can be very persuasive and will often tip the scale in your favor if other materials are on the border.

Susan Amato-Henderson, PhD, received her PhD in experimental psychology from the University of North Dakota in 1996. She joined the Psi Chi family as an undergraduate student, and served as the Rocky Mountain Regional Vice-President from 1999–2001 while a faculty member at Boise State University (ID). She is currently an associate professor in the Department of Cognitive and Learning Sciences and Psychology Program Director at Michigan Technological University (MTU). She has spent much of her time at MTU building and directing a major and minor in psychology. Dr. Amato continues to serve as a mentor to students through the MTU Psychology Club, whose submission for a Psi Chi Chapter was recently approved. Her recent research, funded by over $500,000 in NSF funds, has focused on the assessment of educational outcomes. Dr. Amato has received numerous awards and recognition for her teaching and service at both Boise State and Michigan Tech Universities.

Copyright 2012 (Volume 16, Issue 2) by Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology


Eye on Psi Chi is a magazine designed to keep members and alumni up-to-date with all the latest information about Psi Chi’s programs, awards, and chapter activities. It features informative articles about careers, graduate school admission, chapter ideas, personal development, the various fields of psychology, and important issues related to our discipline.

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