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Eye on Psi Chi: Summer 2017

Eye on Psi Chi

Summer 2017 | Volume 21 | Issue 4


Letters of Recommendation for Graduate School Part III: The Final Six Paragons

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 final article in this three-part series (return to Part I and Part II) completes the set of 12 paragons (i.e., best examples) of passages taken from strong letters of recommendation (LORs) written by the first author that enabled his students to be accepted into the graduate programs of their choice. To refresh your memory, the previous set of the six most frequent applicant characteristics that graduate programs request LOR authors to rate were motivated and hard-working, high intellectual/scholarly ability, research skills, emotionally stable and mature, writing skills, and speaking skills.

Teaching Skills or Potential

Regardless of whether your end professional goal is to become a teacher, being able to teach effectively (or to possess the potential to do so) is an important skill for a graduate student to have. Strong LORs often point to a student’s experience or promise in teaching. During your undergraduate career, you may have the opportunity to be a teaching assistant (TA) in a class. If so, and if you are successful in this professional role, this experience serves as an excellent indicator of your teaching potential and ability. If you do not get an opportunity such as this, there are other activities in which you can engage that can increase your teaching aptitude. You may, for example, serve as a department mentor for students in lower level classes or provide tutoring for students at your university. You may volunteer or be invited to help a faculty member by creating and giving a class presentation on course material or by discussing a research project or internship experience in a class. Be vigilant for opportunities to enhance your teaching skills; this will greatly augment your potential to be a successful graduate student and enable graduate admissions committees to rank you higher than others in their pool of applicants who have not had these opportunities.

Stacey has demonstrated to me that she has the potential to become a very successful teacher. She served as a guest lecturer in both my General Psychology and Honors General Psychology classes on two occasions this semester, and I was impressed with the results. My students commented positively about her presentations, they performed well on the test questions that assessed their knowledge of the material she covered, and they used the information she presented on critical thinking to write cogent papers. I choose Stacey from among our 60 psychology majors to teach my classes because of her excellent oral skills, her knowledge of the subject matter, and my confidence that she would live up to my high standards and expectations. I was not disappointed. I will continue to use her services in this capacity next semester.

The results of Joan’s mentoring were extraordinary. B103 is a very demanding class and has a high drop-out rate, however, all of her mentees completed the class, all but one received a final grade of A or A+, and four of them went on to become mentors in the course. This is a truly amazing feat, and is perhaps the best evidence I can provide you in support of my assertion that Joan has remarkably strong teaching skills.

Works Well With Others

You will work with others on a daily basis in both graduate school and the professional working world. No one works alone, and you will seldom get to choose those with whom you work. Therefore, it becomes your professional responsibility to learn how to work well with diverse populations and with people who are very different from you. This can be challenging, but it is a critical skill to have in order to be successful in graduate school and beyond. Graduate admissions committees seek out students who have this essential skill and, it is often in LORs, that this skill is best described. Letters that stand out are those that describe students who are pleasant and well-liked by students and faculty members, have been elected into leadership positions by their peers, who have been successful working on group projects both in and out of the classroom, and who have worked successfully with diverse groups on the job or during internships. Those who are skilled at working with others display strong interpersonal and communication skills as well as ethically professional boundaries. As you are completing your undergraduate career, think about ways you can work on and display this essential professional skill.

William has grown in a variety of ways during his undergraduate years. He has developed leadership skills as Student Representative to the Honors Program and in his roles as both Vice-President and Publicity Officer of the Psychology Club. He has strengthened his ability to deal with a truly wide variety of people by participating as an active member of Mentoring in the City (inner city students); volunteering as an ELS conversation partner (international students); serving as a Resident Assistant in his co-ed residence hall for two years (full range of college students); acting as a Peer Tutor in philosophy, theology, statistics, and experimental psychology (academically challenged students); participating as an active member of the Housing and Entertainment Subcommittees during the 1997 Indiana Residence Assistants Conference (professional colleagues); and during his internship at Arlington High School, where he dealt with people from all levels and walks of life. This internship brought him into contact with students, parents, teachers, and administrators who were often light years apart in terms of points of view, communication styles, and goals. His ability to deal successfully with this range of humanity in a responsible, diplomatic, and effective manner is a strong indicator of his ability to interact productively with people who are very different from himself and each other.

Another set of crucial characteristics of successful undergraduates and professionals revolves around their ability to work with others in a group. James has impressed me with his ability to display appropriate interpersonal skills, to work productively as a member of a team, and to exhibit effective leadership skills. He communicates well with others without dominating the conversation and is a careful and perceptive listener. If he is unsure of an aspect of an assignment, he always asks for clarification and then acts on it in an appropriate manner. He is a wonderful team member.

Creative and Original

Creating new or original work or ideas is the critical last step in Bloom’s Taxonomy (Adams, 2015). As an undergraduate student, you have been expected to engage in lower levels of critical thinking such as memorization, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. These are essential components of learning and the importance of these skills should not be underestimated. However, as a graduate student, you will be expected to function at the very highest level of critical thinking, and that is the creation of new and original knowledge in your field. To do this, you must be a creative and original thinker. Although you will develop this skill throughout your graduate career, successful graduate applicants have shown their potential for this type of work during their undergraduate preparation. During your undergraduate career, you can show creativity and original thought through designing and implementing an undergraduate research project or thesis or by sharing original ideas in a classroom setting or in an assigned paper.

Terms that Keisha’s internship supervisor used to describe her are “creative, a role model, compassionate, hard-working, empowering, dependable, outstanding clinical skills, task-oriented, and a strong client advocate.” The fact that these words have been used to describe her in the context of her work with the severely mentally ill is surely indicative of “an absolute commitment to work on behalf of oppressed populations,” which is one of the integral components of the mission of your graduate program. Although the severely mentally ill are not often considered to be “oppressed populations,” anyone who has worked with this group is acutely aware of how they are marginalized in our society. This group is in desperate need of more advocates like Keisha.

Frances possesses the personal characteristics that are necessary to survive the rigors of graduate school. She thrives on challenge, is always willing to tackle new situations, exhibits a healthy dose of ambition, and definitely possesses the tenacity necessary to carry a difficult or complex job to its successful completion. She is one of those rare individuals who is an independent thinker, but who also takes direction well. Frances can be counted on to produce an original product that reflects both her inner creativity and the requirements of the assignment. The term paper that she wrote in my class was a prime example of these characteristics. Although her topic deviated slightly—but very creatively—from the original assignment, her finished product was one of the best (and certainly the most interesting) in the class. It reflected originality, thorough research, and felicity of expression.

Strong Knowledge of Area of Study

Another important characteristic of a graduate student is to a have strong foundational knowledge in their field of study. If you do not have this strong background knowledge, you will find graduate school to be a truly intimidating experience. One obvious way of displaying this knowledge-base is by mastering the concepts, theories, and methods that constitute the knowledge base of your major. However, you can make yourself an even stronger candidate for graduate school by strategically focusing your undergraduate degree in other academic content areas that support your professional goals. For example, you may seek out a second major or a minor in a curricular area specific to your professional goals such as statistics (research focused), women’s studies (counseling or working with diverse populations), or kinesiology (sport or exercise psychology). This type of strategic curricular planning shows that you are focused on your educational and professional goals as opposed to being overly general in your purpose for pursuing a graduate degree (Appleby & Appleby, 2007).

I invited Evan to serve as a TA in my two sections of B104 Psychology as a Social Science for several reasons. First, I knew he would do an excellent job with the record-keeping aspect of this position (e.g., entering grades into the online grade book). Second, I was positive he would serve as a very competent tutor to my students who struggle with the content of this class. Third, I wanted him to utilize his strong statistical skills to help me gather, organize, and analyze data that would enable me to assess the effects of various class assignments on test performance. Fourth, I wanted to provide him with an opportunity to refresh his knowledge of the social science side of psychology (e.g., social, personality, industrial/organizational) because I knew he was planning to take the GRE Subject Test in Psychology. He performed admirably in all four of these capacities. He maintained a flawless grade book. He provided students with competent assistance. He collected and analyzed data from the class that enabled me to know which of my assignments and classroom activities correlated most highly with test performance. Evidence of the effectiveness of my fourth reason to involve him in the class surfaced when Evan reported to me that he scored at the 95th percentile on the GRE Subject Test in Psychology.

Although the psychology curriculum requires 14 psychology classes, Shawn has successfully completed 20 psychology classes. This is an extremely rare occurrence, made even rarer by the fact that he is also earning another baccalaureate degree in sociology. To make this an even more amazing achievement, Shawn has also fulfilled the requirements for two of our four Psychology Track Concentrations, one in clinical psychology and one in the psychology of addictions. These accomplishments have provided Shawn with an exceptionally strong foundation of psychological knowledge.

Strong Character or Integrity

In graduate school, as in the professional world, people are often faced with difficult decisions. Because of the unique challenges that practicing professionals in psychology face, graduate school admissions committees seek candidates who have shown good judgement, integrity, responsibility, and courage when faced with challenging dilemmas. In their research on the moral character requirements of practicing psychologists, Johnson and Campbell (2002) stated that, although moral character is a particularly difficult concept to define, “personality adjustment, psychological stability,” “responsible use of substances, integrity, prudence, and caring” (p. 50) are all essential characteristics for practicing professionals and, by default, are also characteristics that potential graduate students in psychology should possess. There are a myriad of ways you can show strong personal character and professional integrity during your undergraduate career. Below, you will find some examples of how past students have demonstrated these critical professional attributes.

One of the parts of Kelly’s senior seminar project was a panel discussion in which LGBT panel members recruited from other local colleges and universities discussed and answered questions about their lifestyles before an audience of her fellow students. Three of the panel members cancelled at the last minute, and Kelly had to make a tough call. Should she replace one of the missing panel members and discuss her own sexual orientation and lifestyle with an audience of her fellow students or should she simply allow the panel to continue with less-than-optimal results? She took the courageous route, and undertook her role with grace and dignity. It takes a brave person to discuss the details of her/his lifestyle and sexual orientation with family and/or friends, but it takes a truly courageous person to do the same in front of an audience of fellow students from a college whose religion foundations are not supportive of alternative sexual lifestyles. Kelly demonstrated her strong character, integrity, and emotional stability to me that day in a very compelling manner.

Christine’s contributions as a panel member of a symposium on teaching ethics that I moderate at the MPA convention have been instrumental to its continuing success. I was highly impressed with her ability to respond during the first session. She had obviously done her homework, listened intently and accurately to what the faculty presenters had to say, and responded in such a thoughtful and thought-provoking manner that it would have been difficult to distinguish her from the faculty presenters if I had not introduced her as a student respondent. I was so impressed that I invited her back the next year. The quality of her second presentation was even higher than her first, and I was told by several members of the audience that it was superior to that of some of the faculty on the panel. Needless to say, I have extended my invitation to Christine once more again this year, and I am confident that she will once again represent the psychology student perspective on the ethics of teaching in a manner that will be as well-received as her first two presentations.

Special Skills

The last category in the top twelve attributes that are often discussed in successful LORs is often dependent on the area of psychology in which you would like to specialize. The category of special skills describes the specific, technical skills needed to be proficient and successful in graduate school. Some of these skills include (but are not limited to) technological, mentoring, advising, assessment, and foreign language skills. If you have specialized skills that will complement your specialty area in psychology, it is in your best interest to make sure that your LOR authors know about and can speak to your application of these skills in their letters.

Ara’s ability to utilize technology is remarkable. He has a working knowledge of a variety of software packages (e.g., Word, Access, Pagemaker, Quark, and Photoshop) and is a skillful computerized bibliographic searcher (e.g., PsychLit Online, Academic Abstracts, and EbscoHost). His proficiency with the Internet and e-mail applications (e.g., Eudora, Netscape, Internet Explorer, and Telnet) has led him to serve as a consultant in these areas to our faculty. One of the assignments in our Senior Seminar is a collaborative project in which each team of students must produce a “book chapter” on a particular topic. Ara served as the leader for his team, and his team produced the best chapter that has ever emerged from this class. It was well-written, clearly organized, and desktop-published in a professional manner. His ability to lead a team in such a group effort is clearly indicative of a strong leader who can put this computer talent to great use in graduate school and beyond.

During Michele’s second semester as a TA, I created a new TA role (Assessment TA) and invited her to serve in this capacity. Her duties were to gather all the evaluation scores that she and her fellow TAs performed on their students’ assignments and send these data in a complete and timely manner to a senior psychology major whose honors thesis focused on the assessment of how well my students accomplished the three learning outcomes that I target as most crucial for my B103 students to accomplish. Michelle created an efficient strategy to collect these data and carried out her duties in this capacity flawlessly. I have begun to use the results of this assessment to make data-based changes to the assignments and pedagogical procedures in B103 for the past two semesters. She received an A+ in B422 Professional Practice in Psychology for her activities as a B103 TA.

Two Crucially Important Caveats About LORs

The authors published an article titled Kisses of Death in the Graduate School Applicant Process (Appleby & Appleby, 2006) whose conclusions were based on the results of a survey sent to the chairpersons of all 457 programs listed in APA’s Graduate Programs in Psychology that contained the following statement: “Please provide us with a brief description of one or two examples of things that otherwise strong applicants to your program included in their application materials that caused your admissions committee members to draw less positive conclusions about them than if they had not included these “kisses of death.” A qualitative analysis of their responses indicated that faulty LORs was the second most common response to this statement and that inappropriate LOR authors and undesirable applicant characteristics mentioned in LORs were the two most common themes within this category. The following advice, taken verbatim from the article (p. 23), should be taken seriously by anyone who is planning to apply to graduate school.

  • Avoid letters of recommendation from people who do not know you well, whose portrayals of your characteristics may not be objective (e.g., a relative), or who are unable to base their descriptions in an academic context (e.g., your minister). Letters from these authors can give the impression you are unable or unwilling to solicit letters from individuals whose depictions are accurate, objective, or professionally relevant.
  • Avoid letter of recommendation authors who will provide unflattering descriptions of your personal or academic characteristics. These descriptions provide a clear warning that you are not suited for graduate study. Choose your letter of recommendation authors carefully. Do not simply ask potential authors if they are willing to write you a letter of recommendation; ask them if they are able to write you a strong letter of recommendation. This question will allow them to decline your request diplomatically if they believe their letter may be more harmful than helpful.


Adams, N. (2015). Bloom’s taxonomy of cognitive learning objectives. Journal of the Medical Library Association, 103(3), 152–153.

Appleby, D. C., & Appleby, K. M. (2007, August). Mentors and yentors: Mentoring as a reciprocal process. Paper presented at the meeting of the American Psychological Association, San Francisco, CA.

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

Johnson, B. W., & Campbell, C. D. (2002). Character and fitness requirements for professional psychologists: Are there any? Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 33, 46–53.

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 threetime 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. 4) Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology

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