Social Psychology Network

Maintained by Scott Plous, Wesleyan University

Advice on Letters of Recommendation

Although grade point averages and standardized test scores play a central role in graduate admissions and job opportunity, most graduate programs and employers do not base their decisions on numeric scores alone. In fact, highly competitive programs may simply use these scores as a screening device to reduce the size of their applicant pool. In such a situation, letters of recommendation can be extremely important.

In general, the best letters of recommendation are from people who:

  • Have worked with you closely (e.g., a research supervisor)
  • Have known you long enough to write with authority (e.g., academic advisor)
  • Have relevant expertise (e.g., professors in the case of academic applications)
  • Are senior and well known (e.g., a departmental chair)
  • Have a positive opinion of you and your abilities
  • Have worked with you in the past 1-3 years
  • Have a warm and supportive personal style

Because the choice of letter writers is important, it's best to begin cultivating personal relationships with potential writers early on. Also, if you're not sure whether prospective letter writers have enough experience with you or have a positive enough impression to write a good letter, there's nothing wrong with asking them whether they would be able to write a strong letter. After all, if you're going to compete with people who have uniformly glowing letters of recommendation, a mildly positive letter from someone who doesn't really know you can actually do more harm than good.

Another issue is whether letter writers should attempt to address weaknesses in your application. For example, if you received a low Quantitative Graduate Record Exam score due to a family crisis immediately before the test date, your letter writer might mention this and argue that the "A" you received in Statistics is a better measure of your quantitative skill. This strategy can be very helpful in some situations, but it is also a double-edged sword that can draw attention to weaknesses in your application. Thus, you should discuss the pro's and con's of this approach with your letter writer before adopting such a strategy -- each situation is unique, and there is no single best way to proceed.

Once you have 3-4 letter writers and a game plan for what you'd like the letters to say, there are two more things you can do to increase your chances of success:

  1. Give your writers plenty of time so they aren't forced to slap together a quick letter or miss any application deadlines. A minimum of three or four weeks is customary and will allow you to check back a few days before the deadline to ensure that the letter has been sent or faxed.

  2. Give your writers a well-organized, thorough packet of materials with all the elements clipped together or contained in a single large envelope (or, if the letter writer prefers, a well-organized set of files emailed to the writer). Ideally, these elements should include some or all of the following items, depending on the letter's purpose:

    • A current copy of your academic transcript showing the courses you've taken and the level at which you've performed. This does not have to be an official copy; a photocopy of your record is fine.

    • A copy of your academic vita or résumé (for information on how to create an academic vita, click here).

    • A web link for each online letter submission, or a pre-addressed envelope for each paper letter (regardless of whether the letter is being sent through campus mail or the postal mail) with postage affixed if the letter is being sent via postal mail. If there are graduate school letters that should be returned to you in a sealed envelope, be sure to write your name and the school's name on the outside of each envelope. Many letter writers also appreciate self-adhesive envelopes that don't require licking or wetting to seal.

    • Any forms that are supposed to be submitted with the letter. If there is a form that goes with the letter, complete as much information as possible (everything except ratings, evaluative statements, signature, and date). For example, type or neatly write the recommender's name, title (e.g., Associate Professor), and full contact information (e.g., telephone number, fax number, postal address, email address). That way, your letter writer can focus strictly on the recommendation itself.

      Note: If you're asked to indicate whether or not you waive access to the letter of recommendation, be sure to answer affirmatively (that you do waive the right). Answering otherwise gives the appearance of not trusting your letter writer, and it dilutes the effectiveness of the letter.

    • A cover note briefly listing:

      • Your contact information in case the letter writer needs to reach you
      • A table or list of deadlines covering all the letters that you need
      • Your career aspirations and the type of position you're applying for
      • Information or points you would like your letter writer to emphasize
      • Summary of work/projects you did with your writer (including dates)
      • Any other information you deem relevant

By adhering to these general guidelines, you will increase the chances of getting good letters of recommendation and ultimately securing the position you seek.

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