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Eye on Psi Chi: Winter 2017

Eye on Psi Chi

Winter 2017 | Volume 21 | Issue 2


Letters of Recommendation for Graduate School
Part I of III: Purpose, Preparation, and Procedure

Drew C. Appleby, PhD,
Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis

Karen M. Appleby, PhD,
Idaho State University

View this issue in Digital and PDF formats.

The authors of this series have been involved in the graduate-school application process for a total of 65 years collectively as applicants, applicant supporters, applicant evaluators, and researchers. Drew, the first author, applied for graduate school in 1969 and, after he earned his doctorate in 1972, he wrote thousands of letters of recommendation (LORs) during the next 44 years for his undergraduate students, over 300 of whom gained acceptance into a wide variety of graduate and professional programs. Karen, the second author, applied for graduate school in 1998 and, after she earned her doctorate in 2004, served as an LOR evaluator for numerous graduate teaching assistant applicants to her graduate program. The authors have also conducted research on the graduate-school application process and reported their findings in a variety of scholarly venues (Appleby, 2008a, 2008b, 2008c; Appleby & Appleby, 2006, 2015; Appleby, Keenan, & Maurer, 1999).

These experiences have brought them to a position in which they feel confident in their ability to offer the advice contained in this series that will

  1. help you understand the unique purpose of LORs in the graduate-school application process,
  2. enable you to select both the curricular and extracurricular components of your undergraduate education that will prepare you to receive strong LORs,
  3. provide you with a procedure that can enable you to select appropriate LOR authors and then help these authors write strong LORs for you, and
  4. expose you to passages from very strong LORs (i.e., paragons) that will help you understand why this type of information can produce acceptance—and success—into graduate programs.
What Is the Unique Purpose of LORs in the Graduate-School Application Process?

Your path to graduate school will be paved with a collection of documents that serve four essential purposes. They ensure that you survive the first round of decisions, during which other applicants who do not meet the basic criteria for acceptance into the program to which you are applying (e.g., GRE scores) are removed from the applicant pool. They allow you to remain in the pile of qualified applicants during the subsequent rounds of decision-making while less-qualified applicants are systematically eliminated.

They provide compelling evidence that you are a sufficiently strong applicant to be offered acceptance into the program. They increase the probability that the program that has accepted you will offer you sufficient financial aid to convince you to reject the offers of other programs that have accepted you.

LORs are unique among these documents because they are the only ones not created by or under the direct control of those who are applying to a graduate program, who complete application forms, compose personal statements, create curriculum vitae, select the classes that will appear on their transcripts, construct study strategies for the GRE, and—in some cases—craft compelling answers to crucial interview questions. All of these are essential components of the graduate-school application process, but their inherent limitation is the subjective nature of the information they contain because it is being provided by the same person who is requesting to be evaluated. This lack of objectivity is the most likely explanation why Norcross, Kohout, and Wicherski (2006) found that “program directors rated letters of recommendation as the single most important criterion in their admissions decisions” when they surveyed hundreds of psychology graduate programs. This finding, paired with Nauta’s (2000) discovery that students routinely underestimate the value placed on LORs, can produce a perilous situation for applicants who fail to recognize the crucial role LORs play in their attempts to gain acceptance into graduate school.

Graduate programs depend upon LORs to provide them with objective information from credible sources that will enable them to evaluate the potential success of applicants based on a set of essential qualities (e.g., motivation, research skills, and intellectual ability) that they believe are crucial for successful completion of their programs. In other words, no admission committee is willing to take your word alone that you are qualified for their program, and LORs are the means by which graduate programs can form an accurate understanding of the ways you are perceived by those who have established themselves as credible professionals in their fields (Appleby, 2008). The fact that LORs can provide graduate admissions committees with important information that cannot be found in your other documents—coupled with their ability to validate, support, or explain information contained in your other documents (e.g., personal statements, test scores, or grades)—makes them perhaps the single most important component of your application dossier.

The bottom line of all this information about LORs is quite clear. Graduate admissions committees take no joy in rejecting applicants, but they fully understand that the success of their programs depends upon their ability to select candidates with the highest probability of earning one of the graduate degrees they offer. This is especially true for highly competitive programs that often waive the tuition of their most highly qualified applicants and also provide them with financial aid that essentially pays these students to work for their departments in teaching or research capacities rather than having to seek employment elsewhere. (For example, one of the first author’s students received $45,000 in financial aid for each of the years it took him to complete his doctorate.)

With this kind of investment at stake, graduate programs must not only accept academically talented students (i.e., those with high grades and GRE scores), but also the kinds of students who receive convincingly high evaluations from their LOR authors in areas required for success in graduate school such as research, writing, and collaboration skills; the ability to successfully manage stress, time, and conflict; and the capacity to display maturity, emotional stability, and integrity in less-than-optimal conditions. The only way for you to receive such positive evaluations is to engage successfully in activities that will enable you to develop these skills and abilities, and then gain the willingness of people who supervised you in these activities—and whose testimony will be deemed credible by those who read it—to describe how successfully you engaged in them.

How Can You Prepare Yourself to Receive Strong LORs?

Effective LORs describe the attributes of their subjects that are valued by the people who read them. In other words, LORs help the members of graduate admissions committees determine how well you will adapt to their program by adjusting successfully to its organizational structure, meeting its criteria for excellence, and eventually earning a degree from it. To prepare yourself to receive such LORs, you must be aware of the qualities that graduate school admissions committees believe are necessary for success in their programs, and then engage successfully in these activities.

But what are these qualities? Appleby, Keenan, and Mauer (1999) identified the most frequent applicant characteristics that graduate programs request LOR authors to rate. The 12 most-often reported of these characteristics, based on a content analysis of 143 graduate school recommendation forms and listed in descending order of their frequency, are as follows.

  1. Motivated and hard-working
  2. High intellectual/scholarly ability
  3. Research skills
  4. Emotionally stable and mature
  5. Writing skills
  6. Speaking skills
  7. Teaching skills/potential
  8. Works well with others
  9. Creative and original
  10. Strong knowledge of area of study
  11. Strong character or integrity
  12. Special skills

The implications of these findings for your success as a graduate school applicant are clear. To obtain the LORs you will need to gain acceptance to graduate school, you must begin by engaging in a strategic effort to bring about the following outcomes.

  1. You must be aware of and understand why the 12 characteristics listed above are crucial for success in graduate school.
  2. You must identify curricular and extracurricular opportunities (e.g., classes, research projects, internships, and leadership positions) in which you can acquire or strengthen these characteristics.
  3. You must engage in these activities in ways that will bring the attention of credible professionals (e.g., faculty members, researchers, supervisors, and organizational advisors) to your successful acquisition of these characteristics.
  4. You must cultivate a positive relationship with these professionals that will produce a willingness on their part to write you a clear, compelling, and detailed LOR that effectively documents the behaviors you engaged in that enabled you to acquire these characteristics.
  5. You must receive positive answers from those who you wish to write your LORs to the following very specific and very crucial question, “Can you write me a strong LOR for graduate school?” Once you accomplish these five essential tasks, you can use the information in the following sections of this series to assist your LOR authors during the complicated task of writing and submitting their letters to the graduate programs to which you apply.
What Procedures Can You Use to Select Your LOR Authors?*

Most graduate programs require a minimum of three LORs as part of their application process. Choosing those who will recommend you is a crucial process that you should base on the following three criteria described by Appleby (2008):

Criterion #1: How well do they know you? Almost every recommendation form begins by asking how long and in what capacity the recommender has known the applicant. You will want to choose recommenders who have known you for at least two years and from whom you have taken several classes or worked with on research or departmental projects. Admissions committees are not impressed with recommendations from persons who do not know you well. They make the assumption that either you have done nothing to allow your teachers to know you well or that those who know you well do not think highly enough of you to write you a letter of recommendation. Do not allow an admissions committee to make either or both of these assumptions about you.

Criterion #2: How positively can they recommend you? Do not simply ask faculty members if they will write you LORs. Ask them if they can write you strong LORs. A mediocre LOR is a sure way to lower your chances for admission to graduate school. You may have good grades, strong GRE scores, and a well-crafted personal statement, but if one of your recommenders writes a letter that paints a weak picture of your potential for success, no graduate school will want to take a chance on you. Work hard to give your instructors reasons to write you strong letters, and then do everything in your power to help them to write these strong letters.

Criterion #3: How credible will your recommenders be to graduate admissions committees? Do not ask for LORs from your family members, high school counselor, physician, or priest/minister/rabbi. They may be able to describe many of your strong personal qualities (e.g., loving, concerned, healthy, and devout), but these qualities are not those about which a graduate admissions committee is primarily concerned. Graduate faculty are evaluated by the quality and quantity of their research publications, and they will be looking for students who will help them in their efforts to achieve success. Choose recommenders with whom you have been involved in research, who have instructed research-oriented classes you have taken (e.g., statistics, research methods, and independent or guided research), or who can vouch for your initiative, persistence, and creativity. These are the people who can write positively about what you have done or about your potential as a successful future scholar/researcher.

Once you have received at least three positive responses to your question, “Can you write me a strong letter of recommendation (LOR) for graduate school?”, it is time to assist them in a way that will produce strong LORs. To do this, you must understand the challenges they will face when they write their letters so that you can provide them with the information they need in a way that will help them write you the strongest LOR they can. Writing LORs is a complex, time-consuming, and labor-intensive process that has become more and more challenging since the first author wrote his first LOR 44 years ago.

The first challenge involves the deadline-creep that has occurred as many programs have gradually moved their deadlines for receiving LORs from well after Christmas break to well before it. In the past, this extended holiday provided faculty with a respite from their usual academic duties (e.g., teaching classes, grading tests, and attending meetings), which provided them with sufficient time to engage in the LOR writing process. Having to write and submit LORs before Christmas break—while also creating, giving, and grading final exams; grading papers and projects; assigning final grades; and providing assessment data to administrative offices—makes this a much more stressful process.

The second challenge is the proliferation of ways in which LOR authors are required to submit their letters. When the first author began writing LORs in the early 1970s, the submission process was simple and straightforward: a hard copy of each LOR was mailed by its author directly to the program that requested it. As time passed, some programs began to ask LOR authors to mail their letters directly to the applicants who requested them so they could be submitted by the applicants with all their other required documents in one package. Still later, many graduate programs began to require LORs to be submitted electronically in a truly mindboggling array of formats and procedures. Some of these work smoothly, and some suffer from a variety of technological glitches that often produce the distressing feeling that, although the submit button has been clicked, the LOR might not have actually reached its intended destination. Some online submission programs require LOR authors to cut and paste their letters into text boxes whose character limits are so small that detail-rich LORs must be completely rewritten to fit.

The third challenge is the result of students’ tendency to apply to a greater number of schools to ensure that they are accepted by at least one (e.g., the first author recently wrote LORs for 17 different graduate programs for one of his students). The final challenge, which has remained constant over time, is disorganized LOR requestors who (a) make separate requests at different times for each LOR, (b) fail to provide complete, correct, and/or organized information needed by their LOR authors, and (c) do not provide their LOR authors with sufficient time to meet submission deadlines. Any one of these mistakes can produce an extremely challenging—and sometimes overwhelming—situation for faculty, especially for those asked to write LORs by a large number of their students. The effect of writing a substantial number of letters, trying to meet a variety of submission deadlines, remembering if letters are to be mailed to programs or applicants, and wrestling with the requirements of a variety of electronic submission programs is a daunting task that—if not successfully done—can lead to disastrous results such as missed submission deadlines, incomplete letters, or letters rejected due to procedural errors (e.g., letter request forms lacking applicant signatures or unsigned waiver forms).

The first author wrestled with these challenges for the entire length of his career and gradually created a systematic procedure (based on a strategy developed by Zimbardo in 1987) called “How to Request a Strong LOR From Dr. Appleby” (Appleby, 2008), which he shared with his students when they approached him with requests for LORs. This procedure includes specific instructions designed to decrease the probability that students will make it difficult for their letters to be written and provides students with a greater sense of control over the content of their LORs by helping their authors to become more aware of their qualities that graduate school admissions committees value and the specific behaviors they engaged in to develop these qualities.

An added benefit of this procedure is that the first author also provided it to students early in their undergraduate careers through his required Orientation to a Major in Psychology class. This enabled them to become aware of the qualities that graduate schools value in their applicants and then engage in the curricular and extracurricular activities that would enable them to develop these qualities. Here is that procedure that you can use for obtaining your own strong LORs.

How to Request a Strong LOR From Dr. Appleby*

A. The first step in this process is to ask me, “Can you write me a strong LOR for graduate school?” I can write anyone an LOR, but I unfortunately I cannot write everyone a strong LOR. I must be sufficiently familiar with you and your work—and your work must be of sufficient quality—so I can provide specific positive examples of the knowledge, skills, and characteristics that your potential graduate school admissions committee wants to know about you (i.e., they will not be impressed if I tell them what a good person you are, but fail to support my assertions with strong evidence). If my answer to this question is yes, then proceed to the next step. If my answer is no, it is not because I do not like you. It is because I sincerely believe that I cannot write you a letter that will help you gain admission to graduate school. If this is the case, I will do my best to work with you to identify a more appropriate person to write your letter.

B. Read the Information That Will Enable Me to Write You a Strong LOR for Graduate School form on the following pages very carefully. Then, choose a minimum of six characteristics you would like me to comment on in your letter, and give me very specific behavioral examples of what you have done during your undergraduate career that I can use as evidence to support these characteristics. For example, if you want me to say you possess teaching skills/potential, you could describe:

  1. how you created a variety of test questions in your Tests and Measurements class,
  2. the positive reviews you received for oral presentations you have made in my classes, and
  3. the fact that I selected you to serve as a teacher’s assistant in one of my classes, and that you created a new technique or strategy to help our students learn the material more effectively.
  4. Please be sure to describe actual behaviors you have engaged in, not just descriptions of your personality characteristics. For example, do not say you are motivated and hardworking because you possess a strong work ethic. Instead, give me an example of something that you have actually done that will allow me to provide behavioral evidence of your motivation and hard work such as the fact that you wrote a 20-page paper with 20 references in my class when I only required a 10-page paper with 10 references.
  5. It is not necessary to fill in all the blanks on these forms; no one possesses all these skills and characteristics. Give this task some careful thought. Your time will be well spent, and I will be able to write a stronger LOR because it will contain specific evidence to support your positive characteristics I will describe.
  6. Obtain a manila file folder, print your name on the tab, and fill the folder with the following materials:
    1. a current and professional-appearing copy of your resumé or curriculum vitae
    2. your completed “Information that Can Help Me Write You a Strong LOR for a Job (or Graduate School)” form
    3. all of the recommendation forms you have received from your potential employers or graduate programs. Make sure you have filled in all the parts of these forms you are supposed to complete (e.g., the program for which you are applying, your signature, the date, and the waiver form—I suggest you waive your right to see the letter)
    4. stamped envelopes that are addressed—typed, not printed—to each employer or graduate program (Exception: If you must include a sealed copy of my letter in your application package, give me an envelope with your name and address typed on it so I can mail it to you and write the name of the school on the bottom left of the envelope so you know to which program to send it.)
  7. On the front of the folder, write a list containing each school or employer to which a letter is to be sent, followed by these four pieces of information:
    1. the deadline by which the graduate school or employer must receive my letter,
    2. where the letter is to be sent (i.e., to the employer, graduate school, or you),
    3. if there is a form that I must complete in addition to my letter, and
    4. the specific graduate program (e.g., Master of Science in School Psychology) or job (e.g., substance abuse counselor) for which you are applying
  8. Write your phone number and e-mail address on the folder so I can contact you if I need any clarifications.

C. Give me this folder at least one month before the earliest deadline of your letters so that I have sufficient time to write an excellent LOR for you. Effective LORs take time to write, so please do not put me in the position of having to rush this important process. Please heed the old saying, “A lack of planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part.” It really is true. This is the first of a series of three articles on the topic of LORs for graduate school that will appear in consecutive issues of Eye on Psi Chi. In this first article, the authors helped you understand the purpose and importance of these documents; provided you with a strategy to prepare yourself to received strong LORs by developing the skills, knowledge, and characteristics that graduate programs value in their applicants; and offered you a procedure to select appropriate LOR authors and then help these authors write you strong LORs.

In the next two articles, the authors will provide you with (a) the reasons why these skills, knowledge, and characteristics are crucial to the success of graduate students and (b) provide you with paragraphs taken from real LORs written by the first author during his 40-year academic career to convince graduate school admissions committees that his students possess the skills, knowledge, and characteristics that they want to read about in LORs. The authors selected these paragons (i.e., best examples) to help you see how a diverse group of psychology majors engaged in a wide variety of curricular and extracurricular activities that convinced graduate school admissions committees to accept them into their programs. Their desire is for you to be inspired by the contents of these paragons, to identify and engage in these activities, and then bring them to the attention of your LOR authors in ways that will increase your probability of success in the graduate-school application process.


Appleby, D. C. (2008a). A developmental strategy to write effective letters of recommendation. In B. Perlman, L. I. McCann, & S. H. McFadden (Eds.), Lessons learned volume 3: Practical advice for the teaching of psychology (pp. 315–323). Washington, DC: American Psychological Society.

Appleby, D. C. (2008b). The savvy psychology major (4th ed.). Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt.

Appleby, D. C. (2008c, August). Students and faculty as partners in the letter-of-recommendation process. Psi Chi Frederick Howell Distinguished Lecture presented at the meeting of the American Psychological Association, Boston, MA.

Appleby, D. C., & Appleby, K. M. (2006). Kisses of death in the graduate school application process. Teaching of Psychology, 33, 19–24.

Appleby, D. C., & Appleby, K. M. (2015). Three new ways to bring students’ attention to the kisses of death in the graduate school application process. Society for the Teaching of Psychology’s Office of Teaching Resources. Retrieved from

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

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. (2006, Winter). Graduate admissions in psychology: I. The application process. Eye on Psi Chi, 10(2), 28–29. Retrieved from

* From The Savvy Psychology Major, Fourth Edition by Drew C. Appleby. Copyright © 2008 by Kendall Hunt Publishing Company. Used with permission of Kendall Hunt Publishing Company.

Drew C. Appleby, PhD, received his BA from Simpson College in 1969 and his PhD from Iowa State University in 1972. He served as the Chair of the Marian University (IN) Psychology Department, the Director of Undergraduate Studies in the Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) Psychology Department, and the Associate Dean of IUPUI’s Honors College during his 40-year career. He has used the results of his research on teaching, learning, academic advising, and mentoring to create strategies to enable college students to adapt successfully to their educational environment, acquire academic competence, identify and set realistic goals, and achieve their career aspirations. He has published over 100 books and articles including The Savvy Psychology Major and made over 600 conference and other professional presentations including 20 invited keynote addresses. He created the Society for the Teaching of Psychology’s (STP) Project Syllabus, transformed STP’s Mentoring Service into an online clearinghouse, and founded and served as the director of the Indiana High School Psychology Teachers Conference. He was honored for his outstanding contributions to the science and profession of psychology by being named a Fellow of the American Psychological Association, the Midwestern Psychological Association, and a Distinguished Member of Psi Chi. He has received 44 national, regional, and institutional awards and recognitions for teaching, advising, mentoring, and service. His work with IUPUI’s varsity athletes led him to be named “My Favorite Professor” by 71 student-athletes, and he was designated as a mentor by 777 IUPUI psychology majors, 222 of whom indicated that he was their most influential mentor by selecting the following sentence to describe his impact: “This professor influenced the whole course of my life, and his effect on me has been invaluable.” Dr. Appleby retired from IUPUI in 2011 with the rank of Professor Emeritus.

Karen M. Appleby, PhD, received her BA from Hanover College (IN) in 1998 and her doctorate from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville in 2004. Currently, Dr. Appleby is a full professor in the Sport Science and Physical Education Department at Idaho State University where she teaches classes in sport psychology, research and writing, senior capstone, and marketing and management in sport. She has conducted research in the areas of student professional development in higher education, women’s experiences in sport and physical activity, and life quality issues in the master’s athlete population. She has published in journals such as Teaching of Psychology; Women in Sport and Physical Activity Journal; the Journal of Physical Education, Recreation, and Dance; the Journal of Sport; and the Qualitative Report. Dr. Appleby was named the Outstanding Collegiate Educator by the Idaho Association for Health, Physical Education, Recreation, and Dance; was awarded the Idaho State University Distinguished Teacher Award; and is a three-time National Masters Cycling champion. In her spare time, she likes to cross country ski, race her road bike, and run with her husband and dogs in the Idaho mountains.

Copyright 2017 (Vol. 21, Iss. 2) Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology

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