|Eye on Psi Chi: Spring 2016|
Eye on Psi Chi
Spring 2016 | Volume 20 | Issue 3
How to Properly Request Letters of Recommendation From Your Professors: Ask, Don't Tell
John Gomez, PhD,
Requesting a letter of recommendation is a professional favor that you, as a junior colleague, should ask a senior colleague for with the respect and sensitivity characteristic of all professional interactions. One asks for a favor, one does not tell a professor what to do by simply dropping off a recommendation form. It is a common mistake to assume that professors will write a strong letter if you simply drop off a recommendation form in their mailbox or e-mail them a web link. If you have not confirmed a professor’s willingness to write your letter, the person may not follow through, or even worse, the person may write a negative letter—disastrous situations you might have avoided if you had talked with the professor first. A strong and effective letter of recommendation is the end product of a student-faculty partnership that you initiate. This article discusses how to properly request letters of recommendation—and how not to request them—with specific instructions and suggestions from some experienced professors.
Strong letters of recommendation are one of the most important parts of every student’s chances of success when applying to graduate school in psychology (APA, 2007). Good grades and test scores are an important start to earning admission to the graduate school of your dreams, but they are not enough by themselves. A perusal of Graduate Study in Psychology (APA, 2015) shows that most graduate programs in our field rate letters of recommendation as “high” in importance. Graduate admission committees are particularly impressed by letters of recommendation from faculty mentors with whom a student has worked closely (Buskist & Burke, 2007; Keith-Spiegel & Wiederman, 2000).
A letter of recommendation is a professional assessment of your potential to complete graduate work or perform successfully on the job. Letters should go beyond describing your classroom work (she’s an “A” student) because such basic information can be easily inferred from your academic transcript. The best kind of letters describe your devotion to research, to practice, or to a particular area of psychology; your ability to grasp difficult concepts and ideas; your “teachability” (i.e., whether you welcome corrective feedback); and your initiative and ambitions. They describe your strengths inside and outside of the classroom (e.g., your involvement in local Psi Chi chapter activities or in undergraduate research opportunities available at your university). Letters describing you only in the classroom suggest to admissions committees that you are not really committed enough to psychology to go beyond the minimum required classroom work. Strong letters of recommendation make your application more competitive, and weak or uninformative letters hurt your chances of being accepted into graduate school or successfully landing a job.
How to Properly Request Letters
Your professor must explicitly agree to write a strong letter of recommendation, and this results from your seeking a student-faculty partnership. Discuss it with the faculty member face-to-face. Do not just drop off forms to be filled out or send a web address for submitting the letter. You are negotiating with your letter writers when you meet in person to ask for a strong, enthusiastic letter of support. This respects professors' right to say no, that they cannot write an enthusiastic letter for you. If that is the case, don’t hear this as a rejection but simply move on because an unenthusiastic letter may well have done more harm than good.
Send an e-mail to a prospective letter writer requesting to schedule a meeting to discuss your need for letters of recommendation. In that subsequent meeting, you will explain your career path, why you are applying to graduate school, and only then ask if the professor feels comfortable writing you a strong (use that word) letter of recommendation. Writing these letters takes a considerable amount of time, so always approach potential letter writers at least three weeks prior to the first deadline.
How Not to Request Letters
Here are three e-mail messages received from students (adapted from Keith-Spiegel & Wiederman, 2000) illustrating how not to request letters of recommendation:
The simple rule is ask, don’t tell. Do not assume that, if you earned a good grade in a course and the professor seemed to like you, you can just leave off the recommendation forms in a mailbox. Applications often request that you list the names of the people who will write letters of support on your behalf. Never list a name unless that person has explicitly agreed to write a letter for you. Unless you receive expressed permission, the professor may not follow through, leaving the admissions committee to ponder your poor judgment if someone you declared would recommend you never bothered to do so.
Who Should Write Your Letters of Recommendation?
Most graduate programs require two to three letters from different people. When choosing letter writers, remember that every person does not need to discuss every aspect of your career potential, your skills, and your character. Seek a set of letters that speak to the range of your academic, research, service and leadership, and applied work experiences. Ask individuals who know you well inside and outside of the classroom, and who know you in different capacities. These individuals may include, but are not limited to, faculty members, supervisors, internship coordinators, and employers who are qualified to assess your work habits, intelligence, judgment, integrity, and other characteristics related to your potential to succeed in graduate school.
Your strongest letters of recommendation are most likely written by professors in your major or in your minor field of study. Preferably, you should have taken at least one or two courses with the faculty member where you performed at a high level, earning “A” grades or a combination of “A” and “B” grades. It is also preferable that you have had other academic interactions need to be psychologists. For example, a work supervisor, preferably in a psychology-related field, would be satisfactory. Professors in your minor field of study are acceptable if they can speak to your range of capacities as they fit your targeted graduate field of study.
Give Each Letter Writer a Portfolio of Information About Yourself
Admissions committees want letters of recommendation to distinguish the applicant in some noteworthy way (Norcross & Sayette, 2014). If your professors are to write a strong letter for you, they need to be able to discuss at length specific examples and demonstrations of your abilities, potential, and personal qualities. They need to describe concrete evidence that hopefully sets you apart from your peers and helps establish that you do indeed have the characteristics that make you an optimal candidate for the job or graduate program.
Provide your letter writers with all of the information they will need to prepare your letters of recommendation by creating an electronic portfolio. Affirm, document, and help them remember all the great things you have done during your college years both inside and outside of your courses together. Even professors who know you well may not know about everything that is relevant to your graduate school or job applications.
Provide the portfolio to letter writers at least 3 weeks in advance of the first deadline date. Be watchful to avoid school breaks, weekends, and holidays when they may not receive the materials or may not write your letter because they are vacation-bound. Paper documents collected in a ring binder may be preferred by some professors, so ask about their preferences. However, converting all documents to electronic form makes for easier transfer and access on any device. Provide a neat, organized appearance for this portfolio to make a positive impression.
Follow Up With Your Letter Writers
Two weeks before each deadline, e-mail a reminder to your letter writers; don’t be shy, it really does help us remember to get your letter submitted on time. Also follow up with each graduate program by contacting their office to ensure that the letters of recommendation arrived as expected and that your application package is complete. Keep in touch with your letter writers. Whether or not you were accepted, they are interested in what you are doing. After all letters have been submitted, send a hand-written note of thanks to each of your letter writers. Do not thank them via e-mail because your heartfelt gratitude for this student-faculty partnership is better expressed through old-fashioned manners like a personal hand-written note or thank you card.
To be a part of a student’s success is a very special, intangible reward for your professors. Help them know what an excellent student you are because they want to write the very best letter of recommendation for you that they can. They want to support your advancement and success.
We have discussed how to properly request letters of recommendation—and how not to request them—with specific instructions and suggestions from some experienced professors. Following this advice should greatly increase your probability of getting the job or getting accepted to the graduate school of your dreams.
American Psychological Association. (2007). Getting in: A step-by-step plan for gaining admission to graduate school in psychology (2nd ed.). Washington, DC: Author.
American Psychological Association. (2015). Graduate study in psychology. Washington, DC: Author.
Buskist, W., & Burke, C. (2007). Preparing for graduate study in psychology: 101 questions and answers (2nd ed.). Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.
Keith-Spiegel, P., & Wiederman, M. W. (2000). The complete guide to graduate school admission: Psychology, counseling, and related professions (2nd ed.). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.
Norcross, J. C., & Sayette, M. A. (2014). Insider’s guide to graduate programs in clinical and counseling psychology. New York, NY: Guilford Press.
Wilson, D. W. (2000). It takes more than good grades! Some straight talk about how to get strong letters of recommendation from faculty, Eye on Psi Chi, 2(2), 11–13. Retrieved from https://www.psichi.org/?page=022EyeWin98aWilson
John Gomez, PhD, teaches, mentors, and conducts research with undergraduate students in psychology at Our Lady of the Lake University (OLLU) in San Antonio, Texas. His research program and teaching focus upon helping undergraduate students to think strategically about their future professional selves and their professional career. He has taught Preparing for Graduate School at OLLU since 2012, an online psychology elective course about academic self-preparation for undergraduates, graduate school decision-making, and career planning in psychology. He has also taught a university-based GRE preparation course since 2008 to students representing more than 20 majors on campus. His courses are two components of the OLLU Psychology Department’s graduate-school-preparatory curriculum, which also includes research- and pre-practice-based concentrations within the major and coursework designed to enhance the necessary knowledge base and skill set for self-preparation for graduate studies. OLLU students and faculty maintain an active Psi Chi chapter, which has hosted two regional Psi Chi research conferences. For more information about OLLU’s curriculum model, please visit www.ollusa.edu or contact Dr. John Gomez at firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright 2016 (Volume 20, Issue 3) Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology