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Eye on Psi Chi: Spring 2017

Eye on Psi Chi

Spring 2017 | Volume 21 | Issue 3


The Link Between Letters of Recommendation and the Personal Statement

Darren R. Ritzer, PhD, and Merry J. Sleigh, PhD
Winthrop University (SC)

View this issue in Digital and PDF formats.

Most students are aware that they will have to provide letters of recommendation as part of the graduate application packet and that they are an important factor in admissions (Norcross, Kohout, & Wicherski, 2005). What might be less well-known is the format of these letters and how they can be used to help you write your personal statement. This brief article is intended to help you understand and use the recommendation form to your advantage as you prepare your graduate application.

Thinking Beyond the Classroom

Many years ago, when we were undergraduate students, we assumed that the purpose of the letter of recommendation was to help graduate selection committees realize what excellent students we were in the classroom so that they would simultaneously appreciate our ability to get good grades in graduate school. Like students today, we thought a great deal about our grades and grade point average, the tangible measures of success. When we started preparing for graduate school and considering potential letter writers, we focused on faculty in whose classes we earned the highest grades. This strategy might be fairly common but perhaps not the wisest.

Brown (2004) compared the personal statements of successful and unsuccessful graduate applicants and discovered that successful applicants emphasized future endeavors and an identity of being a young scientist or emerging professional. Students who simply highlighted their current academic accomplishments were not the ones who were selected. In other words, your application and your letters of recommendation should not be just about the grades you earned in your undergraduate classes. Grade point averages are important selection criteria. However, they are often used early in the process to help narrow the number of applicants. Students who meet a threshold GPA and GRE score continue to be examined, while others are no longer considered. Once grades get a student through that initial hurdle, their importance diminishes (see Handelsman, VanderStoep, & Landrum, 2013, for a brief discussion of this process). The selection committee then turns its attention to identifying students who can succeed as young professionals not only in the graduate classroom but in the subsequent job market.

Letters of recommendation inform this process because they help reviewers more fully understand the individual applicant’s personality, potential, and strengths, and they offer some predictive value regarding which students will ultimately graduate (Kuncel, Kochevar, & Ones, 2014). This information is not completely contained in a grade point average. Recommenders typically are provided with a Likert-type scale and asked to rate the applicant on a variety of skills and characteristics. In many cases, this form is mandatory, whereas writing a full letter to accompany the form is optional. Appleby, Keenan, and Mauer (1999) identified the most common skills and characteristics found on these forms, and Appleby and Appleby (2017) discussed them in more detail. We recently examined recommendation forms from a variety of graduate programs and found that the same characteristics are valued today, with new additions to the list found here and there. Below is the list we compiled of those characteristics (see Figure 1). Notice the common themes, but also the breadth of characteristics on which you might be evaluated. We see “appreciation of diversity” more frequently than we did in the past and were both surprised to see “professional appearance” occasionally appear on forms (especially for students entering the field of education).

This list of descriptors should motivate you to carefully select your letter writers. You need recommenders who have witnessed these characteristics, which might not be possible if your only interaction has been two days a week in the classroom. You do not want your recommenders to select “not applicable/unknown” or to leave a specific rating blank. Your goal in the application is to convey as much information to the selection committee as possible, and blank responses not only fail to convey information, they may reduce the impact of the recommendation by implying that your recommender does not know you well.

This list of descriptors should also help you realize that you have been auditioning for this letter of recommendation since you first met your recommenders. Norcross and Cannon (2008) cleverly stated that “you’re writing your own letter of recommendation.” Their article, along with that of Appleby and Appleby (2017), provide specific advice on how to demonstrate valued characteristics to your letter writers. As current faculty members, we know how difficult it is to rate personal characteristics when all we know about some students is that they came to class and earned top grades. (And, imagine the difficulty of evaluating “professional appearance” when you have only seen a student in an 8:00 am class wearing sweatpants every day!) Every personal interaction that you have with your recommenders is revealing to them who you are and what you value; this information is being conveyed through your words, attitude, behavior, and appearance. You truly are “writing your own letter of recommendation” (Norcross & Cannon, 2008).

Using Your Letters to Inform Your Personal Statement

In addition to being a critical component of graduate admission themselves, letters of recommendation can further enhance your application by helping you write your personal statement. Similar to letters of recommendation, students often think the purpose of the personal statement is to convince the selection committee that they are good students who can earn good grades in graduate school. However, most committee faculty already realize this if your application has gotten to the point in the process where your statement is being reviewed; your success as a student was established with your transcript. You do not want to waste the limited space available in a personal statement repeating information of which the selection committee is already aware.

Before writing your personal statement, examine the recommendation forms for the schools to which you plan to apply. Create a list of the characteristics on which you will be evaluated. These are the skills that the graduate faculty believe you need in order to succeed in their program and subsequently obtain a job. When you see the same characteristics across multiple schools, these are likely to be universally valued. Thus, these are the skills that you need to emphasize in your personal statement.

The instructions for your personal statement will likely include a list of questions, sometimes very specific and sometimes very vague, that need to be answered. Figure out how you plan to organize the answers to these questions in your personal statement (see Sleigh, (2017), for assistance). Then, think about how you can incorporate the specific skills and characteristics that the school is seeking into these paragraphs. Again, we urge you to think beyond the classroom setting. Your leadership positions, hobbies, volunteer work, jobs, and life experiences are all situations in which you may have developed or exhibited these skills. Here’s an example of using a personal experience as evidence of an appreciation of diversity: “My parents are missionaries, and as we traveled across three continents helping impoverished communities dig wells for fresh water, I developed an appreciation for the incredible diversity of culture and economic status that characterizes our world.” Your goal is to clearly describe how something you have done reveals a skill that you have.

You might think of your personal statement as the letter of recommendation you are writing for yourself. If your “letter” matches those provided by others, the overall message is strengthened and the consistency makes it easier for the selection committee to establish a mental image of you as an individual. For example, if your letter writers emphasize your emotional maturity, it will enhance the believability if your personal statement also reveals evidence of your emotional maturity. As a recommender, I might know that you were the treasurer of Psi Chi or a summer camp counselor. I can use this knowledge to some extent to illustrate your characteristics. However, my perspective of what you did in those positions is limited. You have the advantage of knowing the details of the context and your role. It is to your advantage to take an experience that is mentioned in a recommender’s letter and repeat it from a different perspective. The repetition helps the review committee connect the associated characteristic with you as an individual. We can’t emphasize enough that you want the selection committee members to see you as a person rather than as merely one of the many applications they are reviewing.

One criticism of letters of recommendation is that they tend to be universally positive, and thus, do not differentiate among applicants (Stedman, Hatch, & Schoenfeld, 2009). Your personal statement is an opportunity to overcome this problem by taking the ratings provided by your recommenders and elaborating on them. You can provide detail that will further convince the selection committee of the validity of these descriptors. Morgan, Elder, and King (2013) found that, when recommenders are required to elaborate on their ratings, the letters have less bias and are thus a better selection tool. Your personal statement is an external way to elaborate on the recommender’s ratings, one that you control.

Once your personal statement is written, a good strategy is to look at each paragraph. List the skills and characteristics that you have addressed in each paragraph one by one. Then, compare this list to the characteristics on your recommendation forms. Make sure that your overall emphasis is in line with what the graduate school values. Now, this being stated, you may have described personal aspects that go beyond the recommendation form characteristics. This is perfectly appropriate, particularly if your highlighted traits complement the form and, as Brown (2004) suggested, speak to your future potential as a young researcher, practitioner, or professional. Hopefully, seeing the link between your letters of recommendation and personal statement will make both seem (slightly) more manageable.


Appleby, D. C., & Appleby, K. M. (2017). Letters of recommendation for graduate school: Purpose, preparation, procedure, and paragons. In M. J. Sleigh, S. Iles, & B. Cannon (Eds.), An eye on graduate school: Guidance through a successful application. Retrieved from

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

Brown, R. M. (2004). Self-composed: Rhetoric in psychology personal statements. Written Communication, 21, 242–260.

Handelsman, M. M., VanderStoep, S. W., & Landrum, R. E. (2013, Winter). Questions (and answers) about graduate school. Eye on Psi Chi, 17(2), 8–9. Retrieved from

Kuncel, N. R., Kochevar, R. J., & Ones, D. S. (2014). A meta-analysis of letters of recommendation in college and graduate admissions: Reasons for hope. International Journal of Selection and Assessment, 22, 101–107.

Morgan, W. B., Elder, K.B., & King, E. B. (2013). The emergence and reduction of bias in letters of recommendation. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 43, 2297–2306.

Norcross, J. C., & Cannon, J. T. (2008, Fall). You’re writing your own letter of recommendation. Eye on Psi Chi, 13(1), 24–28. Retrieved from

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, 42–43. Retrieved from

Sleigh, M. J. (2017). Writing the personal statement: One paragraph at a time. In M. J. Sleigh, S. Iles, & B. Cannon (Eds.), An eye on graduate school: Guidance through a successful application. Retrieved from

Stedman, J. M., Hatch, J. P., & Schoenfeld, L. S. (2009). Letters of recommendation for predoctoral internship in medical school and other settings: Do they enhance decision making in the selection process? Journal of Clinical Psychology in Medical Settings, 16, 339–345.

Author, PhD, is an associate professor at Winthrop University (SC) and Director of Undergraduate Research for the College of Arts and Sciences. She was Psi Chi’s Southeastern Regional Vice-President from 2012–16. Dr. Sleigh has won numerous awards for her mentoring, teaching, and advising. She is particularly passionate about helping students develop skills for future success through participation in undergraduate research.

Darren R. Ritzer, PhD, is currently an associate professor of psychology at Winthrop University. He earned his undergrad degree in psychology from Lafayette College in Eason, PA and, he earned his PhD in industrial/organizational psychology from Virginia Tech. Before arriving at Winthrop University, Dr. Ritzer was a major in the U.S. Army.

Copyright 2017 (Vol. 21, Iss. 3) Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology

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