NonTraditional Applicants to Grad School: 3 Tips for Getting Recommendations

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Thinking about changing careers? Graduate school is the ticket to a career change; it's not just for recent graduates. Many adults consider returning to school to earn a master's or doctoral degree and begin the career of their dreams. Think graduate school is only for the young? Think again. The average graduate student (collapsing over master's and doctoral programs in all fields) is well over 30 years of age. Midlife applicants to graduate school have special concerns. For example, what do you do about letters of recommendation when you've been out of college for a decade? That's a tough one. Before you resign yourself to completing another bachelor's degree or, worse yet, give up on applying to graduate school altogether, try the following:

Contact your professors from college. Professors keep records on students for years. It's a long shot, though, because professors are known to move on to other schools or retire, but try anyway. More importantly, professors probably won't recall enough about you to write a competent letter. While it's helpful to obtain at least one letter from a professor, it might not be possible to contact your old professors. What then?

Enroll in a class. Before applying to graduate school, try taking a few classes, either at the undergraduate level if you're entering a new field or at the graduate level. Excel in those classes and let your professors get to know you. If they're doing research in your area of interest, volunteer to help. Letters from faculty who know you now will help your application immensely.

Ask a supervisor or employer to write on your behalf. Given that most graduate applications require three letters of recommendation, you may need to look beyond faculty for your letters. A supervisor can write about your work ethic, enthusiasm, maturity, and life experience. The trick is ensuring that your referee understands what graduate admissions committees are looking for in applicants. Provide your referee with all the information he or she needs to write an excellent letter. Include a description of your work-related experiences, why you wish to attend graduate school, your skills, and abilities -- as well as examples of how your current work demonstrates those skills and abilities. In other words, consider exactly what you'd like the letter to say, then provide your supervisor with everything he or she needs to write that letter. Provide phrases and paragraphs that contain important material and examples illustrating your capacities; this can help your supervisor frame the task and his or her evaluation.

It can also subtly guide your letter writer; however, do not expect your supervisor to simply copy your work. By helping - providing detailed information and guidance - you can influence your letter by making it easy for your supervisor. Most people like "easy" and your letter is likely to reflect that.