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Eye on Psi Chi: Fall 2008

Eye on Psi Chi

FALL 2008 | Volume 13 | Number 1


You're Writing Your Own Letter of Recommendation

John C. Norcross, PhD, and J. Timothy Cannon, PhD
University of Scranton (PA)

View this issue as a PDF.

The pithy title of this article is our favorite expression to students requesting letters of recommendation from us. No, not in the literal, irritating sense that a few professors ask you, the student, to physically write portions of their letter of recommendation for you. But in the figurative sense that your behavior over the past 3 (or more) years of your academic life largely determines what we will write about you. Your behavior, your performance dictates the tone and content of our letter on your behalf. Think of your professors as mirrors and recorders of your activity.

Research on graduate school admissions and employment selection consistently demonstrates the high importance of letters of recommendation (Briihl & Wasieleski, 2004; Munoz-Dunbar & Stanton, 1999). In a recent study of hundreds of graduate programs in psychology (Norcross, Kohout, & Wicherski, 2005), program directors rated letters of recommendation as the single most important criterion in their admissions decisions. Yet, students routinely underestimate the value that admissions committees accord to letters of recommendation (Nauta, 2000).

Why Letters of Recommendation?

What do employers and admission committees gain from letters of recommendation? Direct evaluation of your work from a professional experienced in the field. Employers and admission committees desire a more objective sense of your abilities and experience than what you can provide. Moreover, letters of recommendation provide evaluations of certain skills and characteristics that grade point averages and Graduate Record Examination scores cannot (Norcross, Sayette, & Mayne, 2008). Researchers have identified the most frequent applicant characteristics that recommenders were requested to rate (Appleby, Keenan, & Mauer, 1999). The resulting list, based on the analysis of 143 recommendation forms, describes the characteristics that psychology graduate programs value in their applicants. In descending order of frequency, the top dozen are:

  • Motivated and hardworking
  • High intellectual/scholarly ability
  • Research skills
  • Emotionally stable and mature
  • Writing skills
  • Speaking skills
  • Teaching skills/potential
  • Works well with others
  • Creative and original
  • Strong knowledge of area of study
  • Character or integrity
  • Special skills, such as computer or lab

As a student, you must make a concerted effort to acquire relevant skills (research, writing, speaking, computer, etc.), to develop personal relationships with employers and professors, and to be perceived by at least three of them as motivated, bright, emotionally stable, capable of working well with others, and possessing integrity (Appleby et al., 1999).

Given the huge importance of letters and your ability to direct their content, we hereby offer a half-dozen don’ts and a dozen do’s in writing your own letters of recommendation— be it for employment, graduate school, or both.

A Half-Dozen Don’ts

Don’t be a refrigerator light bulb. Sadly, some students only seem to function while under direct supervision (when the refrigerator door is open). Employers and graduate schools are looking for individuals who are capable of autonomous activity—who stay interested and vibrant even when a professor is not in their immediate vicinity. They seek students who can problem solve, yet ask for assistance as needed; students who have both Yin and Yang.

Don’t blame your poor performance on other people. When students begin to whine— "I didn’t know that I was supposed to go to Career Services to get help with job hunting” or "How come nobody gave me a research project!?”—professors turn silent and indignant. Is that what you want your letter to say? Blaming and whining—"No one told me!”—represent the antithesis of responsibility and initiative.

Don’t publicly manifest your pitiful skills in time management. This past semester a student approached one of us before class and said, "Sorry, but I need to leave class today after I take the quiz, because I need to study for a big test in another class.” The student is rating himself lowly on the recommendation form on "time management” and probably "social judgment.”

Don’t exhibit any lethal student behaviors. One creative study asked psychologists how they would handle requests for a letter of recommendation from a student exhibiting specific problems (Grote, Robiner, & Haut, 2001). The majority of psychologists indicated that they would not write a letter for a student who was abusing substances or who had shown unethical behavior. For most of the other student problems— interpersonal problems, lack of motivation, paucity of responsibility, marginal clinical skills—psychologists routinely would tell the student about their reservations, then write the letter including the negative information. Bottom line: Behave in ways that you would like communicated in your letter of recommendation.

Don’t ask inappropriate folks for letters of recommendation. Blood relatives and unfamiliar politicians (even if they are your parents’ friends) should never write letters of recommendations. A letter from a graduate teaching assistant, according to the research (Keith-Spiegel & Wiederman, 2000), is essentially of no help. And don’t even think of asking your psychotherapist for one! Choose people with whom you have worked for a long enough period, preferably for a year or more. That typically excludes a professor from whom you have taken a single class, even if you did get an A. If you wrote a particularly strong paper in the class and the professor knows you a bit better, then he or she could serve as a reference, but this reference is still not the most desirable.

Don’t assume faculty have to write you letters. Contrary to popular student belief, professors do not have to write letters of recommendation. Letters are a common and voluntary courtesy, not a job requirement.

Why might faculty members decline to write a letter for a student? The single most common reason is that they don’t know the student well enough (Keith-Spiegel, 1991). Other frequent reasons given by faculty are that they question the student’s motivation level, emotional stability, academic credentials, or professional standards. If faculty defer on your request for a letter, politely inquire about their reasoning and graciously thank them for their candor.

A Dozen Do’s

Do start early. Employers typically request two or three letters of recommendation; graduate programs typically request three or four. Those letters need to arrive in a timely fashion before the deadline. That means you must ask for letters 4 to 6 weeks before the deadline.

Play it safe and provide the reference forms at least 6 weeks before the deadline. Completing your recommendation may not be the top priority of the person you have asked to write it, or he or she may be out of town prior to the deadline. Faculty members are people too; some of them even procrastinate and may have pending deadlines of their own. Do not take any chances that a letter will be late.

Do ask the right people. Patricia Keith-Spiegel and colleagues (2000) asked members of admissions committees to rank sources of recommendation letters. Raters were asked to assume that the letters from these different sources were equally positive so that rating variations were due solely to the referee’s characteristics. The most valuable sources of recommendations were in order: (a) A mentor with whom the applicant has done considerable work; (b) the applicant’s professor, who is also a well-known and highly respected psychologist; (c) an employer in a job related to the applicant’s professional goals; (d) the chair of the academic department in which the applicant is majoring; (e) a professor from another department from whom the applicant has taken a relevant upper-division course. Use these results to inform your choices.

Do tailor the letters to the particular job or graduate program. Try to secure letters that will give the employer or graduate admissions committee the information they desire. If you are applying for a clinical job or to a practice- oriented graduate program, two letters from clinical supervisors and one from a classroom instructor might be prudent. By contrast, if you are applying for a researchoriented job or graduate school, then two letters from research mentors would probably be better. If a potential employer desires information on your prior work performance, then a previous employer would be significantly more helpful than that of a professor with whom you are not well acquainted.

Do ask if the person can write you a "good letter of recommendation.” Ask the person writing the letters whether he or she can support your application for employment or graduate school. Ask this direct and specific question: "Can you write a good letter of recommendation for me?” If the person responds hesitantly or with reserve, ask someone else. A bad letter of recommendation is deadly. Better to have one brief letter from a professor who knows you less than from someone who might express reservations about your abilities. "I don’t know” is better than "I know, but I have reservations.”

Do waive your right. Recommendation forms, by law, will contain a statement asking whether you do or do not waive your right to inspect the completed letter of reference. The Family Education Rights and Privacy Act of 1974 (the so-called Buckley Amendment) mandates that students over age 18 be given access to their school records unless they waive this right. This is a complicated topic, but we advise applicants to waive their right of access providing, as just discussed, the person writing the letter knows the student well and has unhesitantly agreed to serve as a reference. Do not waive access—or better yet, do not request letters—from persons you do not trust or do not know.

A confidential letter carries more weight. By waiving your right to access, you communicate confidence that the letters will be supportive, and you express trust in your reference. In fact, over 90% of health profession schools prefer letters of recommendation that are waived by the student (Chapman & Lane, 1997: Elam et al., 1998). Our experiences and naturalistic studies (e.g., Ceci & Peters, 1984; Shaffer & Tomarelli, 1981) suggest that professors’ honest evaluations will be compromised when you have access to what they have written. By waiving the right, you are communicating an intent to have the "truth” told. Otherwise, admissions committees may lump the letter with all the other polite and positive testimonials (Halgin, 1986).

Indeed, we both decline to write letters unless the right to access is waived. We reason that our finely crafted letters will be devalued to the point that our effort isn’t worth the impact.

Do provide materials to improve the tone and detail or your letter. Give your referees sufficient data to render informed and positive letters about your personal characteristics, academic strengths, and interpersonal skills so that they do not resort to filling your recommendations with irrelevant content.

Letters are evaluated for positive tone and supportive detail. A two-paragraph laudatory letter on the order of "Great student, fine person” simply doesn’t make the detailed case for competitive employment or graduate admission. A "liability letter” is one that communicates limited knowledge of the applicant, leading an employer or admissions committee to conclude that the person was only minimally connected to professors in his or her undergraduate department (Halgin, 1986).

If the person responds affirmatively to your specific request for a "good” recommendation, then provide that person with a letter similar to that shown in Figure 1. The person writing a letter of recommendation needs copious information in order to produce a credible and informative letter. The letter— and the attendant course listing and CV—will promote accuracy and detail. These are essential characteristics of strong letters of recommendation. Again: You can be powerful in shaping a professor’s letter of recommendation!

Figure 1 | Sample Request for a Letter of Recommendation for Graduate School Admission.
  • Adapted with permission from: Norcross, J. C., Sayette, M. A., & Mayne, T. J. (2008). Insider’s guide to graduate programs in clinical and counseling psychology (2008/2009 ed.). New York: Guilford.

Do all of these steps in person. Yes, it is interpersonally anxious to ask someone, "Can you write me a good letter of recommendation for me?” And, of course, all of these steps are painstaking and time-consuming. But that is precisely the point: You are demonstrating your interpersonal skills, responsibility, and work ethic to the professor even as you are requesting a letter of recommendation attesting to those very attributes!

Thus, ask in person during a formal meeting— not in an email, not by telephone, not in a few minutes before work or class, not by placing a recommendation form in the person’s mailbox. Take the initiative and do it directly in real-time.

Do complete the annoying information on forms accompanying letters of recommendation. Many graduate programs and employers generate their own forms for recommendations. These forms request essentially the same information: the length of time the writer has known you and in what capacities; ratings on your writing skills, organizational ability, maturity, interpersonal skills, persistence, research or clinical skills, and similar qualities on a structured grid; and a request for a summary rating. That rating calls for a check mark on a continuum from "not recommended” to "highly recommended” or a numerical value representing an overall ranking of this student to others taught in the past.

Your dual tasks here are to complete all of the information about yourself and your referee on the forms and to provide stamped, addressed envelopes. This is a small but crucial precaution; do not take the chance that postage will delay return of the letter. It is also courteous: Your professor is doing you a favor taking considerable time and contemplation to write a good letter.

Do prepare for electronic submissions of letters. We guesstimate that approximately one-third of the recommendation letters we write are now submitted electronically through human resource homepages or admission portals. And that proportion is growing as employers and graduate schools go paperless. In this case, you list the names, positions, and e-mail addresses of people who have already agreed to write you letters on your application. The employers and graduate schools then directly contact your referees via e-mail and provide them with the URL and a password to electronically submit their letters to your application file. Online submission of recommendations will streamline the entire process and will become the rule in the near future.

Do practice self-empathy. Some students receive neutral letters of recommendation through no fault of their own. They experience difficulty in securing detailed letters of recommendation because they:

  • transferred from one college to another college before graduating (which occurs, according to the U.S. Department of Education, to almost one-third of all students);
  • attended a mammoth state university where they took huge lecture classes and never had the same psychology professor twice; or
  • switched majors relatively late in their college career and did not get to know their psychology professors well.

We express sympathy to these plights and then recommend three vital remedies. First, you need to double your efforts to get involved in field experiences, research activities, and departmental matters—and do so quickly. Second, practice self-empathy: give yourself a break, realize that the situation is partially to blame, and do the best you can in securing letters of recommendation. Third, if applying to competitive graduate programs, then consider applying a year later to increase contact time with faculty and to strengthen your research and practical experience.

Do go online for additional tips. More pointers on securing and requesting letters of recommendation are offered by the following Web sites:

  • askingforletters/ht/howletter.htm
  • -letters.html
  • recletter.html

Do double-check everything. After all of this effort, insure that your letters of recommendation are submitted on time and to the correct school or employer. We endure the annual experience of encountering missed information, unchecked waiver boxes, even forms associated with envelopes heading to the wrong school! Allow 3 weeks after you requested the letters and politely inquire if the letter has been sent. Be politic: do not pester, but do follow up.

Figure 2 presents a useful checklist of your tasks in requesting and preparing materials for letters of recommendation. This checklist is used by one of us in assisting students (and himself) in producing marvelous letters of recommendation

Figure 2 | When Requesting Letters of Recommendation From Dr. Cannon

Follow, print, and submit this checklist with your materials:

Provide a list of all psychology courses you have taken, along with the grades received and the professors' names.

A listing of all schools yoy are applying to, including the deadlines, whether there is a form to be completed (yes/no), the type (clinical, counseling, MD, OT, etc.) and nature of the program (doctoral, masters, summer research). Important! The deadlines you list should be the dates when the letters can be placed in regular campus mail.

Curriculum vitae

GRE scores (if available); if not, please include SAT scores

Overall GPA and psychology GPA

If you've done research, list the faculty member(s) involved, a brief description of the project, whether it has/will be presented, and your contribution to the project.

When and how you first met Dr. Cannon. Calculate how many years and months Dr. Cannon has known you. It makes for smooth writing to know the years/months.

Provide envelopes for all non-electronic letters. IF THE LETTER SHOULD BE MAILED DIRECTLY TO THE SCHOOL, provide an addressed envelope for the letter. IF THE LETTER SHOULD BE RETURNED TO YOU, provide an envelope with your name and/or address AND the name of the school for which it is intended.

Remember to waive your right to inspect the letter as Dr. Cannon will almost never write letters of recommendation unless you waive this right.

If your program(s) require an electronic version of the letter and do not facilitate the process themselves, send Dr. Cannon an e-mail with a link to the form that needs to be completed.

Due to Dr. Cannon's notoriously bad handwriting, please type (print if you must) all demographic information (for both you AND him) except the date, on all of the applications. Obviously do not enter any responses regarding your evaluation. When asked for the name and position of professor, type the following.

In Closing

Once you accept the core premise that you, figuratively, write your own letter of recommendation, you immediately recognize your power. You largely control what goes in your letter; you control destiny. Start now writing your own enthusiastic and detailed letter of recommendation.


Appleby, D., Keenan, J., & Mauer, B. (1999, Spring). Applicant characteristics valued by graduate programs in psychology. Eye on Psi Chi, 3(3), 39.

Briihl, D. S., & Wasieleski, D. T. (2004). A survey of master’s-level psychology programs: Admissions criteria and program policies. Teaching of Psychology, 31, 252–256.

Ceci, S. J., & Peters, D. (1984). Letters of reference: A naturalistic study of the effects of confidentiality. American Psychologist, 39, 29–31.

Chapman, C. P., & Lane, H. C. (1997). Perceptions about the use of letters of recommendation. The Advisor, 17, 31–36.

Elam, C. L., et al. (1998). Letters of recommendation: Medical school admission committee members’ recommendations. The Advisor, 18, 4–6.

Grote, C. L., Robiner, W. N., & Haut, A. (2001). Disclosure of negative information in letters of recommendation: Writers’ intentions and readers’ experiences. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 32, 655–661.

Halgin, R. P. (1986). Advising undergraduates who wish to become clinicians. Teaching of Psychology, 13, 7–12.

Keith-Spiegel, P. (1991). The complete guide to graduate school admission. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Keith-Spiegel, P., & Wiederman, M. W. (2000). The complete guide to graduate school admission (2nd ed.). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Munoz-Dunbar, R., & Stanton, A. (1999). Ethnic diversity in clinical psychology: Recruitment and admission practices among doctoral programs. Teaching of Psychology, 26, 259–263.

Nauta, M. (2000). Assessing the accuracy of psychology undergraduates’ perceptions of graduate admissions criteria. Teaching of Psychology, 27, 277–280.

Norcross, J. C., Kohout, J. L., & Wicherski, M. (2005). Graduate study in psychology, 1971–2004. American Psychologist, 60, 840-850.

Norcross, J. C., Sayette, M. A., & Mayne, T. J. (2008). Insider’s guide to graduate programs in clinical and counseling psychology (2008/2009 ed.). New York: Guilford.

Shaffer, D. R., & Tomarelli, M. (1981). Bias in the ivory tower: An unintended consequence of the Buckley amendment for graduate admissions. Journal of Applied Psychology, 66, 7–11.

John C. Norcross, PhD, is a professor of psychology and distinguished university fellow at the University of Scranton, a clinical psychologist in part-time practice, and editor of Journal of Clinical Psychology: In Session. His most recent books are Leaving It at the Office: A Guide to Psychotherapist Self-Care (with Guy) and Clinician’s Guide to Evidence-Based Practice in Mental Health and Addictions (with Hogan and Koocher). He is president-elect of APA’s Division of Clinical Psychology and pastpresident of APA’s Division of Psychotherapy.

J. Timothy Cannon, PhD, is the director of the Neuroscience Program and professor of psychology at the University of Scranton, where he won the Pennsylvania Professor of the Year from the Carnegie Foundation in 1995. He earned his doctorate in experimental psychology, specializing in physiological, from the University of Maine and completed post-doctoral work at University of California–Los Angeles. He has organized the University of Scranton’s Annual Psychology Conference for 24 years, during which time he has written hundreds of letters of recommendation.

Copyright 2008 (Vol. 13, Iss. 1) Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology

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