Who To Ask For A Letter Of Recommendation?

who to ask for a letter of recommendation


For a lot of applicants, figuring out who to ask for a letter of recommendation will be one of the most stressful aspects of graduate school applications. You probably feel a bit insecure, even if you’re an excellent student, and also a little confused about who you should ask.
Fear not! Run through our tips about who to ask for a letter of recommendation and you should be able to cultivate a list of professors very easily. Once you know who to ask, check out our guide on how to ensure you get the best recommendation possible.

 

 

Who to ask for a letter of recommendation?

Deciding who to ask for a letter of recommendation requires knowing what universities want out of said letters. For other parts of your application this is obvious: higher GRE scores are better than lower ones, more research experience is better than less, and having awards is better than not. For letters of recommendation however, there doesn’t seem to be a black and white methodology. Despite these subtleties, there are consistent rules regarding what an admissions officer wants to see. Giving them what they want will go a long way towards getting you accepted.

 

(1)  Details.

Admissions committees want specific examples. They read hundreds if not thousands of letters every year that go on and on about how a student is motivated, passionate, hard working, etc. This means nothing to a person trying to weed out the disingenuous from the sincere if there aren’t examples of why the student is passionate, how she is hard working, or who the letter writer is to judge. A good letter of recommendation isn’t just about saying “nice” things, it’s about persuaded the committee using the following details:
Why is the letter writer is qualified to give a recommendation (e.g. I was her thesis advisor for two years and worked with [applicant] for 10 hours a week throughout the school year).
How specifically is the applicant proved they are technically ready for graduate school (e.g. He used Matlab and Python to elucidate statistical inference outcomes on a project with X amount of data that required knowledge of Y economic techniques).
Why does the writer think, on a personal level, the applicant is a good fit for graduate school (e.g. [Applicant] has spent their entire junior year volunteering in my lab for up to 20 hours a week, solely to gain experience on different tools in preparation for graduate school. I have no reservations about their desire to obtain a PhD).

 

(2) Well Rounded.

An oft overlooked aspect of deciding who to ask for a LoR is ensuring that each letter recommends something different about you. We’ll illustrate this with an example. Imagine you’re looking for a new mechanic that can handle all the problems you may encounter with your vehicle. You check yelp reviews for the two mechanics in town. Each only has three reviews:

Mechanic A

Review 1: I went in for an oil change. They were fast and courteous with good rates. No complaints.
Review 2: Needed to have my oil changed so I made an appointment in advance. The waiting room was clean and I didn’t have to wait long. Good prices on oil changes if you go every 5,000 miles.
Review 3: Had a Groupon for 50% off an oil change. I was in and out in less than 30 minutes. Would recommend.

Mechanic B

Review 1: My starter needed to be replaced. They found me a good deal on a used one and installed it the same day and provided a 90 day warranty even though it was used. Would highly recommend.
Review 2: I went in thinking I needed to replace my transmission. They were very honest and courteous and managed to do a fix and clutch replacement, which saved me thousands of dollars. Highly trustworthy and knowledgeable.
Review 3: Had to replace my AWD my tires and decided to get an oil change while there. The whole thing took less than an hour and they were still cheaper than their competitor. Would highly recommend.
 
Which one would you rather go to, if they both cost the same? You’d likely choose Mechanic B, because you know they can do a lot of stuff well, instead of just one thing really well. The same applies to graduate letters of recommendation.
You want letters that can speak to all the things you need to do well in order to be successful. This means you’ll need letters that speak to your ability to do classwork, technical knowledge (how to use equipment, writing skills, programming knowledge, etc), and ability to think and act like a researcher (creative research ideas, fortitude in the face of tedious work, ability to understand and communicate complex ideas, etc).

 

 

(3) Diverse.

By the same reasoning as the previous point,  when deciding who to ask for a letter of recommendation it’s a good idea to have letters of recommendation from diverse sources. One letter might be from your advisor with whom you did a research project your senior year. Another letter might come from a Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) or internship program where you did research for a summer (e.g. a National Lab, newspaper, nonprofit etc). Your third letter could be a professor in a different department if you double majored, or a professor you took multiple classes with but who was not your advisor. In an ideal situation, you’d have letters from professors and/or researchers at three different institutions, such as three separate universities. This is difficult of course, so spreading it out as much as possible between departments and programs should be your goal.
Just make sure that the places you cull from are apposite to your intended program. If you’re applying to an economics or sociology program, a letter detailing the research and experiences you got from a 6 month field excursion to India could be very useful, especially if you’re interested in international or macroeconomic subfields. It wouldn’t be a good idea to use this recommender for an application to a physics program however, even if you did conduct (non-related) research while abroad.

 

 

(4) Academic.

If you could choose any three recommenders, the best would be three letters from tenured faculty at three separate universities. The truth is that an admissions committee will never trust any recommendation as much as those that come from a professor. It’s partially routed in logic: who could possibly judge your preparation for graduate school better than someone who manages graduate students? It’s also because academia can be a little cliquey, even stuffy at times. There are professors who might weigh research experience at a non-academic institution slightly less than that conducted at a university. This isn’t necessarily fair, because you could have learned a great deal more somewhere else. Nonetheless it’s important to be aware of these kinds of biases, justified or not.
No matter what type of PhD program you’re applying to–submit a minimum of two letters from university professors. That third or fourth letter can come from a variety of sources depending on your intended program, but make sure at least two come from a university affiliate. Can you get into a program not following this rule? Sure. But it is not common, and you’re setting yourself up for a more difficult application process. If you’re applying for a PhD in business administration for example, you might be able to get away with two letters from work experience, but it’d still be better to have two professors from an economics department or business school write those letters.

 

 

(5) Prestige.

ModeratorafeldhausThis is a factor that is usually weighted too heavily by applicants, and it’s worth mentioning how it can get you into trouble.
If you worked with your university Dean on a project, it’s tempting to ask them for a letter. Afterall, how impressive would it be to have a letter of recommendation from a Dean?
The truth is that all the titles in the world won’t make up for a generic or lackluster letter. The likelihood that you worked closely enough with this person to get an incredibly detailed recommendation is pretty low–if they’re that much of a hotshot they are probably also pretty busy. It’s always more important to get a good detailed letter than it is to have a letter from someone “important”. 
The catch here is that if you can get a great letter, it’ll be worth more if the person is also a big deal in your field. So a glowing and detailed letter from a Professor Emeritus who pioneered your field of interest is obviously the holygrail (so to speak) of recommendations. If your choice is between that person writing a generic letter and an assistant faculty member writing a fantastic letter, always choose the latter!
Lastly, if you’re stuck between getting a potentially generic letter from a professor or a highly detailed letter from a non-professor, you’ll have to use your best judgment given your particular situation. Before you write off that professor however, read through our how to get amazing letters of recommendation guide. It outlines how you can get a fantastic and detailed letter, even if you don’t know the professor very well.

With these desirable attributes in mind, you should have a good idea of who to ask for a letter of recommendation. Make a list of professors whose classes you’ve taken, those you worked with on research, relevant extra-academic experience, etc. Then decide which “bundle” of people could contribute the most to your application as a whole.
Once you’ve decided who to ask for a letter of recommendation,  read our how to ask them guide to guarantee the highest quality letter possible. Don’t write them an email until you’ve read through our guide!

 

 

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Who To Ask For A Letter Of Recommendation?

who to ask for a letter of recommendation April 8th, 2016


For a lot of applicants, figuring out who to ask for a letter of recommendation will be one of the most stressful aspects of graduate school applications. You probably feel a bit insecure, even if you’re an excellent student, and also a little confused about who you should ask.
Fear not! Run through our tips about who to ask for a letter of recommendation and you should be able to cultivate a list of professors very easily. Once you know who to ask, check out our guide on how to ensure you get the best recommendation possible.

 

 

Who to ask for a letter of recommendation?

Deciding who to ask for a letter of recommendation requires knowing what universities want out of said letters. For other parts of your application this is obvious: higher GRE scores are better than lower ones, more research experience is better than less, and having awards is better than not. For letters of recommendation however, there doesn’t seem to be a black and white methodology. Despite these subtleties, there are consistent rules regarding what an admissions officer wants to see. Giving them what they want will go a long way towards getting you accepted.

 

(1)  Details.

Admissions committees want specific examples. They read hundreds if not thousands of letters every year that go on and on about how a student is motivated, passionate, hard working, etc. This means nothing to a person trying to weed out the disingenuous from the sincere if there aren’t examples of why the student is passionate, how she is hard working, or who the letter writer is to judge. A good letter of recommendation isn’t just about saying “nice” things, it’s about persuaded the committee using the following details:
Why is the letter writer is qualified to give a recommendation (e.g. I was her thesis advisor for two years and worked with [applicant] for 10 hours a week throughout the school year).
How specifically is the applicant proved they are technically ready for graduate school (e.g. He used Matlab and Python to elucidate statistical inference outcomes on a project with X amount of data that required knowledge of Y economic techniques).
Why does the writer think, on a personal level, the applicant is a good fit for graduate school (e.g. [Applicant] has spent their entire junior year volunteering in my lab for up to 20 hours a week, solely to gain experience on different tools in preparation for graduate school. I have no reservations about their desire to obtain a PhD).

 

(2) Well Rounded.

An oft overlooked aspect of deciding who to ask for a LoR is ensuring that each letter recommends something different about you. We’ll illustrate this with an example. Imagine you’re looking for a new mechanic that can handle all the problems you may encounter with your vehicle. You check yelp reviews for the two mechanics in town. Each only has three reviews:

Mechanic A

Review 1: I went in for an oil change. They were fast and courteous with good rates. No complaints.
Review 2: Needed to have my oil changed so I made an appointment in advance. The waiting room was clean and I didn’t have to wait long. Good prices on oil changes if you go every 5,000 miles.
Review 3: Had a Groupon for 50% off an oil change. I was in and out in less than 30 minutes. Would recommend.

Mechanic B

Review 1: My starter needed to be replaced. They found me a good deal on a used one and installed it the same day and provided a 90 day warranty even though it was used. Would highly recommend.
Review 2: I went in thinking I needed to replace my transmission. They were very honest and courteous and managed to do a fix and clutch replacement, which saved me thousands of dollars. Highly trustworthy and knowledgeable.
Review 3: Had to replace my AWD my tires and decided to get an oil change while there. The whole thing took less than an hour and they were still cheaper than their competitor. Would highly recommend.
 
Which one would you rather go to, if they both cost the same? You’d likely choose Mechanic B, because you know they can do a lot of stuff well, instead of just one thing really well. The same applies to graduate letters of recommendation.
You want letters that can speak to all the things you need to do well in order to be successful. This means you’ll need letters that speak to your ability to do classwork, technical knowledge (how to use equipment, writing skills, programming knowledge, etc), and ability to think and act like a researcher (creative research ideas, fortitude in the face of tedious work, ability to understand and communicate complex ideas, etc).

 

 

(3) Diverse.

By the same reasoning as the previous point,  when deciding who to ask for a letter of recommendation it’s a good idea to have letters of recommendation from diverse sources. One letter might be from your advisor with whom you did a research project your senior year. Another letter might come from a Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) or internship program where you did research for a summer (e.g. a National Lab, newspaper, nonprofit etc). Your third letter could be a professor in a different department if you double majored, or a professor you took multiple classes with but who was not your advisor. In an ideal situation, you’d have letters from professors and/or researchers at three different institutions, such as three separate universities. This is difficult of course, so spreading it out as much as possible between departments and programs should be your goal.
Just make sure that the places you cull from are apposite to your intended program. If you’re applying to an economics or sociology program, a letter detailing the research and experiences you got from a 6 month field excursion to India could be very useful, especially if you’re interested in international or macroeconomic subfields. It wouldn’t be a good idea to use this recommender for an application to a physics program however, even if you did conduct (non-related) research while abroad.

 

 

(4) Academic.

If you could choose any three recommenders, the best would be three letters from tenured faculty at three separate universities. The truth is that an admissions committee will never trust any recommendation as much as those that come from a professor. It’s partially routed in logic: who could possibly judge your preparation for graduate school better than someone who manages graduate students? It’s also because academia can be a little cliquey, even stuffy at times. There are professors who might weigh research experience at a non-academic institution slightly less than that conducted at a university. This isn’t necessarily fair, because you could have learned a great deal more somewhere else. Nonetheless it’s important to be aware of these kinds of biases, justified or not.
No matter what type of PhD program you’re applying to–submit a minimum of two letters from university professors. That third or fourth letter can come from a variety of sources depending on your intended program, but make sure at least two come from a university affiliate. Can you get into a program not following this rule? Sure. But it is not common, and you’re setting yourself up for a more difficult application process. If you’re applying for a PhD in business administration for example, you might be able to get away with two letters from work experience, but it’d still be better to have two professors from an economics department or business school write those letters.

 

 

(5) Prestige.

ModeratorafeldhausThis is a factor that is usually weighted too heavily by applicants, and it’s worth mentioning how it can get you into trouble.
If you worked with your university Dean on a project, it’s tempting to ask them for a letter. Afterall, how impressive would it be to have a letter of recommendation from a Dean?
The truth is that all the titles in the world won’t make up for a generic or lackluster letter. The likelihood that you worked closely enough with this person to get an incredibly detailed recommendation is pretty low–if they’re that much of a hotshot they are probably also pretty busy. It’s always more important to get a good detailed letter than it is to have a letter from someone “important”. 
The catch here is that if you can get a great letter, it’ll be worth more if the person is also a big deal in your field. So a glowing and detailed letter from a Professor Emeritus who pioneered your field of interest is obviously the holygrail (so to speak) of recommendations. If your choice is between that person writing a generic letter and an assistant faculty member writing a fantastic letter, always choose the latter!
Lastly, if you’re stuck between getting a potentially generic letter from a professor or a highly detailed letter from a non-professor, you’ll have to use your best judgment given your particular situation. Before you write off that professor however, read through our how to get amazing letters of recommendation guide. It outlines how you can get a fantastic and detailed letter, even if you don’t know the professor very well.

With these desirable attributes in mind, you should have a good idea of who to ask for a letter of recommendation. Make a list of professors whose classes you’ve taken, those you worked with on research, relevant extra-academic experience, etc. Then decide which “bundle” of people could contribute the most to your application as a whole.
Once you’ve decided who to ask for a letter of recommendation,  read our how to ask them guide to guarantee the highest quality letter possible. Don’t write them an email until you’ve read through our guide!

 

 

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@
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