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Eye on Psi Chi: Spring 2017

Eye on Psi Chi

Spring 2017 | Volume 21 | Issue 3


Letters of Recommendation for Graduate School Part II of III: Six Paragons

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

Karen M. Appleby,
Idaho State University

View this issue in Digital and PDF formats.

This article is a reversed version of an old pedagogical technique called Show and Tell that is used to help children develop public speaking skills by requiring them to bring an object from home, show it to their classmates, and then tell the class interesting information about it. Thus far (see Part I), the authors have provided you with information about an object about which they assume you are quite interested because you have chosen to read this article. This object is a letter of recommendation (LOR)—or more precisely, at least three strong LORs—that you will need to gain acceptance to graduate school. Thus far in this series, we have helped you understand the purpose and importance of these documents, provided you with a strategy to prepare yourself to receive 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 other words, the authors have done the “telling” part of Show and Tell, but not the “showing” part.

It is now time to show you examples of paragraphs 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. These paragraphs—printed in italics and arranged in order of the 12 most frequent applicant characteristics that graduate programs request LOR authors to rate (Appleby, Keenan, & Mauer, 1999)—are preceded by short paragraphs written by the second author (who has evaluated hundreds of LORs as the graduate coordinator of her department), which explain why the possession of these characteristics is crucial for success as a graduate student. When you finish reading these paragraphs, you will have fulfilled the desire of the authors of this article to both show you examples of what strong LORs contain and tell you about the nature and importance of these documents.

Motivated and Hardworking

Perhaps the most fundamental disposition a student must possess to be a successful graduate student is to be motivated and hardworking. Students can display their motivation and high work ethic in a number of ways in their undergraduate careers such as through their “active involvement” or volunteerism in on-campus clubs and groups or off-campus through professionally relevant organizations (Arnold & Horrigan, 2002, para. 8). Other ways students can show their motivation for the profession is by displaying a genuine interest and passion for the subject matter through showing enthusiasm for course material (Gomez, et al., 2011), consistently submitting high quality work, or by volunteering as a teaching or research assistant for a faculty member.

John exhibits one of the highest levels of motivation that I have experienced in an undergraduate student. He gave up a great deal to re-enter school—after a 17-year absence—and he is firmly committed to his classes in particular and his education in general. It is a true pleasure to have students like John in class who want to use the information they acquire to better their lives, their careers, and—ultimately—the lives of others. John is, of course, interested in earning high grades—which he does quite successfully—but I am firmly convinced that he works as hard as he does to acquire the knowledge, skills, and characteristics that are the student learning outcomes of his classes, rather than just to obtain high grades.

Amber has an exceptionally strong work ethic. She has worked for one of my colleagues (Gary Taylor) as a 20-hour per week assistant, and I am aware—because my office is next door to Gary’s lab—that she often puts in 30 to 40 hours per week. She does this because she knows that it is necessary to get the job done, and she does it willingly, efficiently, and with a wonderfully positive attitude.

High Intellectual/Scholarly Ability

Graduate school is intellectually rigorous and, therefore, requires strong scholarly ability. The faculty members who you ask to write LORs for you should be those who can speak to your high academic abilities and performance in the classroom (Appleby & Appleby, 2006). Skills such as writing, public speaking, problem solving, mastering difficult course material, and research skills should be some of the academic assets that faculty members choose to highlight your intellectual strengths. Other indicators of academic success, of course, are GRE scores and grade point average (GPA). It should be noted, however, that all GPAs are not equal. In the first author’s experience evaluating graduate level transcripts of prospective students, he tends to look for patterns of improvement if a student’s GPA is not as high as one would expect for a graduate applicant. If your grades indicate that you have improved throughout your undergraduate career, this can show graduate schools that you have made a conscientious effort to improve your academic skills over the years. There are, however, red flags that may point to potential academic problems such as low grades in program-specific or methods courses, withdrawals from classes, a high amount of easy electives, or a curriculum that shows no practical application of a student’s ability (Appleby, 2003). During your undergraduate career, make sure you steer clear of these “red flags!”

John is an exceptionally strong student. The class he took from me requires students to read a chapter of complex material each week, watch video lectures containing large quantities of information, complete a chapter in a comprehensive study guide, and participate in active learning exercises in class. John was always present, prepared, and willing to participate. He scored higher than any other student in the class on each of the five exams and, as a result, earned the only A+ in the class.

After excelling in my two classes and as my TA, Ashley continued her pursuit of academic excellence by not only graduating as an IUPUI Honors student, but also receiving our department’s highest academic award, which is bestowed on the graduating senior who has earned the highest cumulative GPA. She has also been named to IUPUI’s Top 100 Students list for the past two years, and last year she was further selected as one of IUPUI’s Top 10 Female Students, which is a truly incredible honor on a campus with 30,000+ students. I would be remiss if I did not include the fact that Ashley maintained her extraordinarily high academic record while also working 18 hours a week at an Indianapolis law firm.

Although she experienced a slow start during her first two years, Geeta has transformed herself into an excellent student. Even a cursory glance at her transcript reveals that she is on a strong, upward academic trajectory. I have been particularly impressed with the electives in which she has enrolled during the past year. Introduction to Law, Torts, Legal Research and Writing, and Ethics (all taken last summer and all resulting in final grades of “A”) have provided her with a strong undergraduate foundation in legal studies. Although Maddi had been in the United States for only a few months—and English was not her native language—she performed extremely well in my class. She earned a final grade of A, which is no small feat because usually less than 5% of my class earns an A. I was amazed at how quickly Maddi became proficient in both English and psychology. She is very bright and a very quick study!

Research Skills

Buskist (2001, para 7) stated that “one of the most important activities in which an undergraduate can participate is research.” When you enter graduate school, you will be expected to have a well-developed array of research skills. Therefore, it is critical that, during your undergraduate career, you get involved in some type of research activity. When analyzing LORs, the first author seeks out descriptions of students that emphasize the ability to perform research in an effective and appropriate manner. Comments that highlight a student’s ethical responsibility when conducting research (e.g., adhering to appropriate APA guidelines to avoid plagiarism and successfully submitting a human subjects proposal for institutional review) effectively demonstrate that a student understands and is willing and able to make the commitments a successful researcher must possess. Other key factors that graduate faculty seek in LORs are specific research skills such as synthesizing peer-reviewed literature; choosing, designing, or implementing appropriate instrumentation; and analyzing statistical or qualitative data. Presenting and disseminating your research is also important. If a faculty member can express that you have presented your findings in a scholarly context, submitted your research to a professional publication, or published the findings of your research, this clearly indicates that you possess a high ethical commitment to the profession of psychology and understand the importance of sharing research findings in a professionally appropriate context.

Jessica is a skillful and experienced researcher. Our department offers its undergraduates a wide variety of research experiences, and Jessica has taken full advantage of our offer. As a very active member of our Psychology Biology of Addictions research team, she has learned how to operate operant conditioning equipment and software; trained several strains of alcohol-preferring and nonpreferring rats; performed a variety of surgical, histological, and microinfusion techniques; used Excel and SPSS software to store and analyze data; and performed critical reviews of the neuroscience and addictions literature. She has also completed an independent research project on the role of the medial forebrain bundle in alcohol drinking behavior under the guidance of her faculty mentor.

David enrolled in my Capstone Seminar in Psychology, in which he worked as a member of a team that researched the face validity of the Collegiate Learning Assessment, a newly created and nationally standardized test that colleges and universities nationwide may begin requiring their graduating seniors to take. He headed the Data Analysis Team during this project, and exhibited an exceptionally strong work ethic by completing all of his tasks on-time (and even earlier in many instances), creating easy-to-comprehend graphs, and presenting his fellow researchers with the results of his statistical analyses in a professional and understandable manner. The good work of David and his classmates resulted in the presentation of their results at the National Assessment Institute at the invitation of Dr. Trudy Banta, the institute’s director. David’s presentation to a national audience at the Assessment Institute was poised, professional, and lucid. David was a very competent and enthusiastic participant in this project, his work was of the highest quality, and he demonstrated genuine competence in the every stage of the research process.

Emotionally Stable and Mature

Being a graduate student is challenging because it requires the demonstration of high levels of dedication, commitment, and responsibility. All of this can, unfortunately, lead to stress. Therefore, another key indicator of a student’s potential success in graduate school is the ability to successfully manage stress in an emotionally stable and mature manner. As Gomez et al. (2011, para. 11) indicated, “Informative comments about your classroom performance combined with a character reference make the strongest letters of recommendation.” You can display your strong, professional personality dispositions in a number of ways such as balancing a full-time job with your education or personal life, by completing all degree requirements in a timely (if not early!) fashion, or by volunteering for meaningful community work. Be aware that your behaviors in undergraduate school—both in and out of the classroom—reflect on your emotional stability and maturity and, therefore, your ability to be a successful graduate student.

It is important to know that Shawn has experienced some significant stressors during his undergraduate education that have tested both his emotional stability and his maturity. During these challenges, I have observed that Shawn has maintained his composure, exhibited a positive attitude, continued to produce high quality academic work, and—most importantly—developed effective ways to cope with similar stressors in the future.

One of the things that makes Ashley stand out in my mind as an emotionally mature and stable student is that she completed her degree in a very timely manner despite the fact that she is a single mother. Each of our graduating seniors must write a “senior reflection” essay, and I include the following quote from Ashley’s essay to provide you with an idea of how she turned a potentially college-stopping event (i.e., the birth of her child) into a college-motivating event. “When I graduate, my daughter will watch me accomplish one of the hardest tasks of my life. I have not earned a grade lower than a B since August 2000 thanks to her. Graduation will be a great experience for her to see and share with me.”

It is important to mention that Scott is a well-balanced, humane, and mature person. He has served as a Residence Assistant in his residence hall, a position that requires a great deal of energy, wisdom, and old-fashioned common sense. Scott has also volunteered his time and talents to a variety of good causes such as Special Olympics, the Red Cross, First Start Children’s Christmas Program, and the Physical Therapy Department of the Henry County Memorial Hospital. These types of experiences, and his ability to profit from them, will serve him well both in medical school and in his professional life as his world expands beyond the confines of undergraduate school.

Writing Skills

Being an effective and professional writer is essential for success in graduate school and, fortunately, writing is a skill that can be learned and perfected. Obviously, the best way to demonstrate that you are an effectual writer is by writing papers and assignments for class in a manner that reflects both stylistic competence and mastery of the subject matter. Professional writing is clear, concise, and organized. It is also devoid of spelling, grammatical, mechanical, and formatting errors. During your undergraduate career, you have a wonderful opportunity to refine your writing skills because you will get feedback on papers and other written assignments from your professors. One of the best ways to show that you are working on your writing skills is to take this feedback seriously and integrate it in your final assignments. Another important aspect related to your writing skills is your ability to be an ethical writer.

Ethical writers in psychology cite sources appropriately throughout their writing by following appropriate APA formatting guidelines in all aspects of their written work. Students whose LOR authors speak positively to these important skills are viewed positively by graduate admissions committees.

Scot served as both a TA and the Lead TA in my Orientation to the Major in Psychology class for five semesters. During that time, he helped me improve the class in many ways, one of which was his totally unsolicited offer to create a document that we titled “Scot’s Quick Guide to Navigating the 6th Edition of the APA Publication Manual” that he wrote in response to APA’s newest edition of its Publication Manual. He also edited the evaluation form used by my TAs to score student writing assignments to include specific reference points in the APA Publication Manual for each of its scoring parameters including categories to measure students’ ability to conform to APA’s ethical compliance guidelines for citing sources. I have taught thousands of psychology majors, and I would put Scot at the top of this list in regard to his ability to write in APA style, his ability to teach others how to write in APA style, and—perhaps most importantly in his capacity as a Lead TA—to mentor those who teach others how to write in APA style.

I would be remiss if I did not bring Eileen’s strong writing skills to your attention. Her experiences as both a psychology and an English major provided her with abundant opportunities to master basic writing skills (e.g., grammar, spelling, and punctuation) and to become fluent in three professional writing styles (i.e., APA and MLA), which have helped her to tailor manuscripts to the specifications of journals with different stylistic requirements. She also served as the senior editor of IUPUI’s literary magazine during which she collaborated with a team of editors to select submissions for each issue, made editorial suggestions, designed the layout, and worked with a publishing company to produce two issues of the magazine. Her strong writing skills and writing-related experiences have enabled her to be a coauthor on a manuscript published in Cancer Nursing and to be the lead author on an article in preparation that examines the psychometrics of the CES-D scale and its applications to cancer populations.

Speaking Skills

In the first author’s teaching experience, he has found that students generally fall into one of two categories: those who love and those who abhor public speaking. Regardless of which of these categories describes you, you should know that the ability to publicly speak in a professional manner is a skill that graduate admissions committees take very seriously. When you are in graduate school, your expectations to speak publicly will increase significantly. You will, of course, still be expected to give presentations in class. However, you will also be expected to present research at professional meetings and conferences, perhaps help teach and lecture in academic courses, and defend a thesis, dissertation, or project successfully in front of a committee composed of graduate faculty. Much like writing, public speaking is a skill that can be practiced and strengthened. Just being comfortable in front of a group does not make you an effective presenter. Excellent public speakers are those who are professionally confident and poised; who give carefully practiced, engaging, and organized presentations; and whose strong knowledge of their subject matter enable them to think on their feet by providing convincing answers to challenging questions.

Perhaps one of Katya’s most amazing honors was that her midterm and final papers in her Power of Persuasion speech class were chosen by her instructor to be exemplars for future classes and that her final speech received one the of the highest grades in the class. For an international student who has been in the United States for only one year, these accomplishments are truly exceptional. Andrea has a very effective presentation style that results from a combination of natural poise, careful preparation, and clear and precise articulation of ideas. The mini-lecture she presented in my History and Systems class was accompanied by clearly written handout and an appropriately chosen short video. The class learned the material she presented (as evidenced by their peer assessments of her lecture and their performance on the next test that covered its contents), and she was able to objectively evaluate her own performance and suggest ways to improve her future presentations in her self-assessment. She has further sharpened her oral skills during her Marian years by serving on the Freshman Orientation Staff and as an Admissions Department Student Assistant who gives prospective students and their parents campus tours.

Dr. Trudy Banta, who is one of IUPUI’s vice chancellors and a nationally known expert on assessment, was so impressed with the assessment project conducted by my Senior Capstone class that she asked me to invite some of my students to present a synopsis of our final report at the National Assessment Institute she hosts annually at IUPUI. Kristina was one of the students I chose, and I could not have made a better choice. With very little coaching from me, she explained the survey portion of the project, presented its results, and ended with a conclusion which included questions for future research. I was immensely impressed—as was Dr. Banta—with the clarity of her presentation and the poise with which she presented it. This was the first time that undergraduate students presented at this national conference, and Kristina and her fellow presenters were so impressive that Dr. Banta invited my B454 students to present their work at her next two conferences.

The final article in this three-article series will complete the set of 12 paragons (i.e., best examples) of passages taken from strong letters of recommendation written by the first author that enabled his students to be accepted into the graduate programs of their choice. This final set of most frequent applicant characteristics that graduate programs request LOR authors to rate are teaching skills or potential, works well with others, creative and original, strong knowledge of area of study, strong character or integrity, and special skills.


Appleby, D. C. (2003, Spring). What does your transcript say about you, and what can you do if it says things you don’t like? Eye on Psi Chi, 7(2). Retrieved from

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

Arnold, K. L., & Horrigan, K. L. (2002, Fall). Gaining admission into the graduate program of your choice. Eye on Psi Chi, 7(1). Retrieved from

Buskist, W. (2001, Spring). Seven tips for preparing a successful application to graduate school in psychology. Eye on Psi Chi, 5(3). Retrieved from

Gomez, J. P., Guerrero, B., Anderson, K. B., Graham, L., Corey, D., & Cusack, R. (2011, Spring). Avoid pitfalls in planning for graduate school. Eye on Psi Chi, 15(3). Retrieved from

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

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