Who Should You Ask for a Recommendation Letter?

Teacher and student meeting
sturti / Getty Images

Recommendation letters are a non-negotiable part of every graduate school application. Nearly all applications to graduate school require at least 3 letters of recommendation from individuals who can discuss your competencies in a coherent way and recommend that you be admitted to graduate school. Many students find that it is not difficult to select one or two people to approach for letters of recommendation.

Others aren't sure of who to approach.

Who is the Best Choice? 

Who can write the best letter? Remember the main criterion of the letter of recommendation: It must provide a comprehensive and positive evaluation of your abilities and aptitude. It should not be surprising that letters from professors are highly valued by admissions committees. However, the best letters are written by faculty who know you, from whom you have taken multiple classes and/or have completed substantial projects and/or have received very positive evaluations. Professors provide insight into your academic competencies and aptitude as well as personality characteristics that may contribute to your potential to succeed in graduate schools, such as motivation, conscientiousness, and timeliness.

Should You Ask Your Employer for a Letter?

Not always, but some students include a letter from an employer. Letters from employers are useful if you are working in a field that is related to that which you intend to study.

However, even a letter from an employer in an unrelated field can be useful to your application if he or she discusses skills and competencies that will contribute to your success in graduate school, such as the ability to read and integrate information in order to draw conclusions, lead others, or carry out complex tasks in a timely and competent fashion.

Essentially it's all about spin -- spinning the material so that it matches what committees are looking for.

What Makes for an Effective Recommendation Letter?

An effective recommendation letter is written by someone who meets some of the following criteria:

  • Is aware of your field of interest and the schools you are applying to.
  • Is able to evaluate your performance in your field of interest.
  • Is able to discuss your personal characteristics
  • Is able to discuss your capacity to work with others
  • Can discuss your leadership skills
  • Can evaluate your level of professionalism (e.g., punctuality, efficiency, assertiveness)
  • Can discuss your academic skills -- not simply experience, but your potential to succeed in graduate-level study
  • Evaluates you positively relative to others
  • Has some recognition and whose judgment is highly valued within the field.
  • Has the skills to write a helpful letter.

Many students become nervous when they see this list. Remember that no one no one person will meet all of these criteria, so don't fret or feel bad. Instead, consider all of the people who you might approach and attempt to compose a balanced panel of reviewers. Seek individuals who will collectively fulfill as many of the above criteria as possible.

Avoid this Mistake

The biggest mistake most students make in the recommendation letter-phase of the graduate school application is to fail to plan ahead and establish relationships that lead to good letters. Or to not consider what each professor brings to the table and to instead settle for whoever is available. This is not the time to settle, choose the easiest path, or be impulsive. Take the time and make the effort to consider all of the possibilities -- each professor you have had and all persons you have come into contact with (e.g., employers, internship supervisors, supervisors from settings in which you have volunteered). Don't rule anyone out at first, just make a long list. After you have created an exhausted list, rule out those who you know will not give you a positive recommendation.

The next step is to determine how many criteria those remaining on your list might fulfill - even if you have not had recent contact with them. Continue evaluating each person to choose potential referees.