Monday, November 9, 2009

Recommendation Letters

Schools also will require you to send 2-3 recommendation letters to help drive home that you’re a good candidate for grad work. Below I’ve outlined how to go about getting a positive recommendation.

Schools usually require you to get at least two of your letters from people who can attest to your ability to succeed academically (i.e. professors), but you may also be able to use letters from clinical supervisors, internship supervisors, bosses, etc. Most professors also consider it part of their job to write rec letters, so they’re prepared for you to ask.

I’d suggest getting at least two of your letters from professors in your department, although this isn’t a firm rule. You could certainly get letters from professors in a related field, but a letter from a professor who taught a one credit class on the history of bacon probably wouldn’t cut it. So, start making a good impression on a handful of professors.

Also start to consider who you might want to ask early on. Keeping up contact with a professor you have a good relationship with is often easier than scrambling to make another good impression later in the game. That’s not to say that you should only ask for letters from professors you knew freshman year, but you’ve got a backup plan if you don’t click with anyone senior year.

I would recommend getting letters from the actual professor vs. graduate assistants (GA, TA, etc.). While the GA might know you more personally, there is something to be said for the letter coming from someone with a graduate degree and good standing in the university. This is my personal opinion, however, and it may not matter for all schools. 

I don’t think there’s a hard and fast rule to this, but I’d suggest asking in the fall of your senior year. This is where keeping up contact with potential letter writers comes in. You might not be as successful getting a letter from a professor you haven’t talked to in three years. Asking too early won’t do you much good either, as professors are most likely busy writing letters for current seniors and will want to think about you when your time comes.

If you’ve already started to fill out your applications, be cautious when entering names and info for recommenders. Some application programs immediately email your recommenders as soon as their contact info is entered, so save yourself the embarrassment and hold off on this until you’ve confirmed they’ll write for you.

This should be obvious, but work to make a good impression on a handful of professors. It’s not to say that they won’t write a letter for you if you skipped a few classes, but they’re going to generally remember your attendance record, participation, and grades.

As for asking in an email versus in person, consider each professor’s preferences and how well you know them. I was worried about asking through email because it might be too informal, but a friend pointed out that asking in person might put them on the spot if they aren’t comfortable writing a letter for me. I compromised by sending an email asking to talk about grad school and the potential for writing me a letter. That seemed to work pretty well, as I did talk with them in person, but they had some heads up about what I wanted out of the meeting.

I would venture to say that most professors will decline if they feel they can’t write a favorable letter, but go ahead and ask if they will write you a positive one. Explain why you’ve chosen to ask them and, if applicable, talk with them about your goals and reasoning for wanting to attend grad school. This will help them to personalize your letter.

Once I got three confirmed letter writers, I set to create a rec letter packet. This is something I’ve seen suggested on several websites, as well as from professors in my department. I asked each professor when they would like the packet and what they wanted inside. One professor told me to not include paper submission materials because she always uses online submission, so it’s worth asking. The packet should include the following:

1.      A cover letter that thanks them and provides a summary of your academic interests
2.      A cover letter for each school that details important submission information (deadlines, addresses, and submission method)
3.      Any recommendation forms provided by grad schools
4.      Stamped, addressed envelopes for each school (unless they specify they don’t want                these)
5.      Résumé
6.      Copy of your personal statement (at least a rough draft)
7.      An unofficial transcript
8.      Any papers from their class (graded ones are better)
9.      A thank you note (This isn’t actually in the packet, but delivered after the letter has been submitted. You could probably get away with not writing this, but it’s a nice touch anyway.)

Check with your writers after submitting your packet to make sure they have all the forms they need, both in paper and online. It would stink to find out that they never got the link to an online submission form. Although most schools won’t hold reasonably late letters against you, it’s also good to check in with professors to make sure they’ve submitted it on time.

Aside from the thank you note, you’re done with the professors now. Check with your prospective schools that all letters (and materials for that matter) have been received. Things get lost in the mail and people are forgetful.

While I was finishing up my rec letters packets, I was incredibly frustrated by schools changing how they wanted letters submitted, so I thought I'd mention it. Triple check how the school wants the letter submitted and make sure you have all the appropriate forms filled out. Most schools will ask for online submission, but if they're using this newfangled Communication Sciences and Disorders Centralized Application Site (CSDCAS), that may change things. A few of my schools required paper letters, but I needed to look out for where the letter writer sent the final product (to me or the school). Just a heads up.

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