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Letters of Recommendation

Obtaining Letters of Reference

Obtaining letters of reference requires that you plan ahead. Start developing relationships as soon as you can. Make the effort. Stand out in class. Go to office hours. Get involved. There are many ways to know instructors; find one that works for you.

Who Should I Ask?

The best letters of recommendation are written by faculty who know you, from whom you have taken multiple courses and/or have completed substantial projects and/or have received positive evaluations. Instructors provide insight into your academic competencies and aptitude as well as personality characteristics that may contribute to your potential to succeed in graduate school such as motivation, conscientiousness, and timeliness.

Things to consider before approaching faculty members:

Know what graduate schools are looking for in their applicants.

This will help you select letter writers who can speak to those criteria. In general, graduate schools seek applicants who demonstrate the following:

  • Intellectual development through college

  • Aptitude for independent thinking and research

  • Analytical abilities and writing skills

  • Leadership or creative qualities

However, do your own research into the programs to which you are applying to find out what criteria they want letter writers to address.

Think about faculty who could tell a good story about you.

A letter that only includes general comments, such as, “She was a good student who participated in class and turned in her assignments on time,” indicates that the faculty only knows you superficially and is unable to talk about you with any depth or knowledge. A strong letter writer is a faculty member who knows you well, knows your educational and career goals, has a high opinion of you and who can:

  • evaluate your performance in your field of interest

  • discuss your personal characteristics

  • discuss your capacity to work with others

  • discuss your leadership skills

  • evaluate your level of professionalism (e.g., punctuality, efficiency, assertiveness)

  • discuss your academic skills -- not simply experience, but evaluate your potential to succeed in graduate-level study

Choose a variety of letter writers.

Select a range of letter writers in order to present a more comprehensive picture of yourself. You could select one faculty member under whom you have done a research project or an independent study, another faculty member who is familiar with your experiences on a study abroad program or an internship, and select another faculty member you have had for several classes.

*Note: Some of your references will likely not be faculty members. You could approach a teaching assistant, an internship supervisor, an employer, a supervisor/coordinator who oversaw your work on a volunteer or community service project. Most often, it is the depth of response and not the title or position of the letter writer that is most important.

Making the Ask

Request a meeting to discuss a letter of recommendation. Avoid asking for a letter of recommendation in an email. Instead, request the letter and discuss your plans during the meeting.

During your meeting with the instructor, be direct. Ask the instructor if she is able to write a strong letter to support your application to graduate school. A lukewarm letter won’t be helpful and will likely hurt your application, so if the instructor cannot offer a strong letter, it is best to ask someone else. If an instructor says no, do not be offended; she is doing you a favor.

If an Instructor Agrees to Write a Letter

It is particularly important that your letter writers understand your goals and your graduate program so that the letter they write will be tailored appropriately. For example, if you are applying for a program in neuroscience, you will want one of your references to write about your lab experiences, whereas if you are seeking a degree in clinical psychology you may want one of your letter writers to discuss your interpersonal skills.

During your meeting, be prepared to discuss the following:

  • Your reasons for pursuing this particular program

  • Your career goals

  • How your undergraduate program has led you to this graduate path

  • Why you have selected this particular faculty member as a letter writer

  • Why you are a strong candidate for this graduate program

Give Them Information to Work From

If the instructor agrees to write the letter for you, bring the following documents in a neatly organized folder. (The folder should have your name and contact information on it.)

  • Résumé

  • Transcript (can be unofficial if it is simply for the instructor’s use)

  • List of activities/experiences, including outside activities like jobs (you may want to highlight those that are relevant to your area of study by putting those first). Mentioning that you worked 30 hours a week while going to school full time can be incredibly important to a letter writer as it speaks to your ability to balance a multitude of responsibilities.

  • For each school that you would like the instructor to write a letter of recommendation, include the following in an individual, labeled folder: recommendation form, personal statement/essay, any information about the program that may be help him/her to tailor the recommendation, a cover sheet highlighting what you would like the letter writer to address in the letter.

Deadlines and Reminders

Give your letter writers at least one month to write your recommendations and be sure the deadline is clear. Instructors are extremely busy and have likely been asked to write letters for other students. By asking an instructor well in advance of the deadline, you are demonstrating not only that you are respectful of the instructor’s time, but also that you are able to manage your time and prioritize things that are important to you like graduate school. This also demonstrates maturity.

Send friendly reminders, such as, “Is there any additional information you need to complete my application for Harvard Graduate School by Oct. 22?” Instructors are very busy people and will appreciate gentle reminders; an irritated email, such as “I gave you the materials over two weeks ago, can you please get the letter in by tomorrow,” will likely only agitate the instructor rather than expedite the process.

Getting to Know Faculty Members

Getting to know faculty who can write strong letters of recommendations is a long process that should begin early in your academic career. Consider pursuing the following avenues to get to know faculty and for them to get to know you.

Research Experiences

U-M offers many opportunities to get involved with research. Committing to a research project for at least one year can be a good way to get to make faculty contacts.

Ways to Make the Most of Your Research Experience

  • Be as selective as you can (within reason); choose a project that suits your interests and strengths and that pairs you with a faculty member who is researching a subject that appeals to you.

  • Document your experiences; journaling can be a good way to do this.

  • Talk with faculty about how your research experience ties into your personal, academic, and career goals and/or how your research experience has changed/shaped your goals.

  • Seek constructive criticism on your performance and be open to criticism.

  • Be open to learning. As you become more familiar with the project, look for ways to become more involved and to assume more responsibility without being pushy.

  • Be sure to keep a record of your work and your experiences for future reference.

Applied/Field Experiences

Applied/Field or “real world” experiences can also be a good place to get to know faculty. Programs such as Camp DavisNew England Literature ProgramBioStation, and GIEU (Global Intercultural Experience for Undergraduates) are a few examples of such programs. While these experiences may be too short in duration to establish a strong relationship with a faculty member, they can serve as a foundation upon which you can build that relationship in future semesters.

During your applied/field experience, be sure to do the following:

  • Document your experiences; journaling can be a good way to do this.

  • Talk with faculty about how your field experience ties into your personal, academic, and career goals and/or how your field experience has changed/shaped your goals.

  • Seek constructive criticism on your performance and be open to criticism.

  • Be open to learning.

  • Be sure to keep a record of your work and your experiences for future reference.

Classroom Experiences and Office Hours

Perhaps the most obvious place to get to know faculty is in the classroom. However, a faculty member will not have the opportunity to get to know you from the other 300 students if you simply attend the class lectures. You will have to find a way to engage the course material and the instructor. Here are some ideas.

  • Be on time and sit near the front of the class. This allows you to focus on the instructor and the course material. If you are close enough, the instructor will be able to make eye contact with you and will see that you are engaged in the lecture. Even this non-verbal interaction creates a connection.

  • Be prepared for class by reading assigned materials, writing required papers, and completing problems so that you can ask intelligent questions and follow the lecture more closely. If you are behind on the readings or the homework, it can be more difficult to ask thoughtful questions in class. Instructors very quickly identify students who are well prepared for class.

  • Tie current events into lecture material. After class or during office hours, approach your instructor to discuss a news article, documentary, or news radio program that recently published/aired an article/story related to a topic covered in class. This shows the instructor that you are not only interested in the course but that you are making connections between the classroom and current events.

  • Take a couple classes with the same instructor. Not only is it important to take more than one course with the same instructor, but it is also important to take at least one seminar course with the instructor. Taking a seminar (usually enrollment is limited to around 25 students) will give you the opportunity to get to know the instructor on a much deeper level.

  • Use office hours, and use them effectively. This means it is best to have first grappled with the material, the reading, and the problems first before seeing the instructor so that you have a better idea of what you are struggling with so they can better help you. Write down your questions and try to be as specific as possible. If you are prepared, you will feel more confident and you will benefit more from your meeting. In addition, the instructor will also learn something about you—that you are an organized student with good questions who is concerned about doing well in the course and who is a conscientious student. (See Using Office Hours Effectively).

Campus and Department Events

Departmental colloquia, public lectures, receptions, and events are a great place for students to connect with instructors on an informal basis. It is a chance for the students to present themselves to the faculty as “junior colleagues,” especially for students interested in pursuing graduate school.


Additional Resources

Additional Resources on Campus

Pre-Law Advisors in the Newnan Advising Center

The Pre-Law advisors in the Newnan LSA Academic Advising Center have developed tips for letters of reference for your law school applications.

Pre-Health Advisors in the Newnan Advising Center

The Pre-Health advisors provide information for applying to all healthcare graduate programs on the Newnan Advising Center Pre-Health website.

The Career Center

Career Center advisors provide advising on the entire graduate school application process, including advice on personal statements and letters of reference. The Career Center’s Reference Letter Service offers University of Michigan students the opportunity to have letters of reference on file to use in support of their application to graduate/professional school or employment.  You can have a letter writer submit their letter to the Career Center and then whenever you need them, the Career Center will send your letters.