|Please note: this is not an official document of the English department at the University of Northern Iowa. These are my own opinions about applying to grad school. Your professors may disagree with me; you may want to check with them before you take my advice. — VG||
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First, make sure your referees will write strong, positive letters.
To start off, I hope you've already laid the groundwork earlier by getting to know your professors and making sure these professors know you well so they can speak in a convincing way about you and your strengths.
(If you are not yet at this point, if you are still, say, a sophomore or a junior, it's never too late to start becoming acquainted with your professors. Visit professors with whom you share an academic or professional interest during their office hours, but by all means, do not overstay your welcome making pointless chit-chat, no matter how "brilliant." Perform well during class discussions, i.e., speak often, making significant and appropriate points, but also leave the impression that you are someone who allows room for others to speak. Write all your assignments eloquently and gracefully, of course, with proper attention to theory or craft, etc.).
Now, let's assume you have done this groundwork and have a good record among your professors as a fit candidate for grad school. One, ask for letters from professors in whose classes you earned A's. Two, ask professors who know you well. Three, if possible, ask professors in fields you are interested in studying during graduate school, so they can speak to your particular affinities for those fields. If you have done what I suggested above in your coursework, chances are good you will have mentors who fit into all three of those categories.
A possible four: if one of your professors has a strong connection to one of your prospective grad schools — perhaps she went to that school or she previously taught there — ask that professor for a reference (assuming she is in at least two of the three categories mentioned in the last paragraph), That professor's letter will be taken more seriously than other letters because (1) some or all of the members of the admissions committee will know her, (2) the admissions committee will know that your referee has a vested interest in sending only highly capable students to that school — in other words she has her reputation as a recommender to protect, and (3) the admissions committee will know that since your referee knows their graduate program she can accurately evaluate your fitness for the program and whether you will complete it.
Note, though, that you should not choose a grad school simply because your favorite professor was there. Choose your prospective grad schools on your own criteria; then if you have a professor who happens to be connected to one of those grad schools in some way and is willing to write a letter of reference, count it as a stroke of good luck.
Since we are talking about a grad-school application and not a bid for employment, I would dissuade you from asking former bosses or clergy(wo)men or professional friends to serve as referees. That you worked in a certain job (even in a related discipline) will often not be germane to the grad-school requirements. The letters expected by the grad school will be from professors, typically. But there are exceptions; for example, if you are applying to PhD programs in English Education (which require incoming grad students to have worked several years in the schools), a reference from your principal will probably be useful if focused mainly on your academic goals and accomplishments as well as your potential career as an educator of teachers.
When you are ready to request the letters, ask each referee in person and not by e-mail or by telephone. It's only polite. If you are no longer near the referee's institution, then I would say phoning the referee is the next best option. Only use e-mail if the deadline for the letter is imminent. I would hope, however, that you haven't corralled yourself into that kind of panic situation.
When you visit (or phone) your referee, don't start off requesting the letter. If you haven't seen this professor in a while, remind her of who you are, what class(es) you were in, the kind of work you did in class, perhaps even specific assignments. (Once again, don't talk too much, though.) Once your rapport is rebuilt, then pop the question.
If you get a yes, it's important that you find out how positive your referee's letter will be. The best way to do this is by just asking straight out. I believe it is the referee's moral responsibility to tell you. (Remember, even if the referee wants you to succeed, she also has a responsibility to tell the truth to your prospective grad school, and if she cannot write a sterling letter, she will likely want to urge you to ask someone else). Keep in mind, however, that a professor may also not want to say no to your face. So watch for hesitation or reticence or nervousness even if the answer is yes. You can always tell the referee later that you won't need the letter after all; believe me, a reluctant referee will not be dismayed.
Second, give your referee plenty of information to include in her letter of reference.
At minimum, tell the referee — in writing — which class(es) you were in, which term and year, and what grade(s) you earned.
Better yet, in addition to the above information, provide examples (photocopies are best) of work that you did in the referee's class(es), if they are available. (When such material is indeed available, you will enhance the impression your referee already has of you.) If it has been several years since you took the refereee's class(es), then also provide work you have done more recently in the field.
Best, again in addition to the above, give your referee a résumé that includes not only information pertaining to your major and coursework but also other usual résumé materials: employment, hobbies, volunteer service, etc. This is particularly useful when you have already graduated and have been working, pursuing professional goals, etc.
This résumé should not be one you typically use to gain employment. This should be made expressly for this purpose: to provide useful information for the letter of reference, with regard to your major, your projected field of study, and your current (and future) interests.
A savvy referee will find useful elements in the non-major-related items. Recently, a student requesting a letter from me provided such a résumé. Something I didn't know about him — that he had volunteered in several capacities to help with the handicapped — I used in my recommendation (for him to enter law school) by combining what he said in his application essay about being passionate about issues of social justice with this practical service. My reference was certainly improved by his résumé, lifting it above the typical "he worked really hard in my class and earned such and such a grade."
Speaking of the application essay, you should, as my student did, give the referee a copy of this document which is required by all grad schools — most commonly called a statement of purpose or sometimes graduate-study objectives or personal background. Your statement of purpose will give your referee a handle on why you're applying to grad school, what you want to do with your graduate degree, how the discipline you're interested in connects to your personal interests and passions, and how your academic and personal background has prepared you for grad school in this discipline.
At the end of Tennessee Williams's Streetcar Named Desire, Blanche Dubois says, "I rely on the kindness of strangers." Don't be a Blanche Dubois. Often, students ask me to write a letter of reference and leave me to my own devices. You can do better than that.
It's perfectly okay (and desirable, I think, from the referee's perspective) for you to steer what the referee will say in her letter. Most referees won't mind such steering (they can ignore it on their prerogative anyway), but if you think you referee might mind, simply ask if some guidance from you would be all right.
The application materials from each grad school will say that they want referees to focus on such qualities as intelligence, innovativeness, knowledge and expertise in the field, writing skills, potential teaching ability, likelihood of (your) success in grad school, whether or not the referee thinks you will finish grad school, etc. You could, for example, split up these items among your referees, depending on your experience with each of them. If, let's say, in Professor Krishnamurtha's class you worked on an experimental project, you could ask her to focus on your innovativeness in the field. Perhaps you were a teacher's aide in Professor Smythe-Burnson's class; you might ask him to write about your aptitude for teaching. Perhaps Professor Hinojosa is well aware of a personal problem you had and which you solved valiantly; you might urge her to share that story as evidence that you can succeed under conditions of adversity.
Providing guidance to your referees about what they might include in their letters will help ensure that the content of the references is not redundant. Although redundancy among the letters won't hurt you because the admissions committee will be aware that such redundancy happens, having a different focus in each letter will leave more room for the referees to go into greater detail about your various strengths, since they won't have to cover the same ground.
If you decide to steer your referees, do so tentatively and respectfully. Make sure to remind each referee that she can write whatever she wants, but also add that you would appreciate it if she could address such and such. You might also say that you have asked Professor Krishnamurtha to focus on this, Professor Smythe-Burnson to focus on that, and Professor Hinojosa to focus on yet another thing — this way, each referee will see that you have a grand plan for the references and their combined effect. (Not a bad idea, also, to ask a professor earlier for advice or comment on your grand plan.)
If your referee decides not to follow your plan, you haven't really lost anything, for two reasons: (1) you have previously ensured that referee's letter will be positive and enthusiastic, and (2) the referee may have thought of an even better way to highlight your strengths. Remember, we referees have written hundreds (if not thousands) of these letters and know what works and what doesn't.
At my previous university, I had a colleague — in other words, a fellow professor — who, when a student would request a letter of recommendation, would hand the student a sheet of department letterhead and say, "Type up your own letter; I'll sign it." Now, that is tacky to the extreme, but it is a bonanza for the student. Imagine: you get to write your dream letter of recommendation. If something like this happens to you (perhaps your referee wants to use your draft as a basis for her own letter), don't be shy. Write the letter as if you are that professor and you have found the most excellent student of your entire career. If your referee eventually waters the text down, some of that enthusiasm may still remain.
Third, make your referee's job as pragmatically easy as you can.
To waive or not to waive? I'm talking here about a question you'll need to answer on probably all applications. According to the Privacy Act, you have legal access to see the letters of recommendation written by your referees. The grad school will ask if you want to give up that access, to waive it away.
You should always waive that right. Here's why: the conventional wisdom about letters of reference is that if the student has the right to see the letter at some later date, the referee may inflate the recommendation. Conversely, if the student has waived that right, the letter of reference will be more candid, more true, so to speak. (I don't actually believe this is true, at least in my own case as a referee, but it is supposedly a widely held belief.)
Besides, some professors will give you a copy of their reference anyway. Even if you have waived your right to see the letter the grad school has, your professor has not waived her right to show it to you before you get to the grad school.
Doing the opposite, holding on to your right to see the letters, may adversely affect how your references are read at the grad school if the admissions committee subscribes to the conventional wisdom. So ... always waive that right. If you have chosen your referees carefully — if they know you well and are genuinely in your corner — then you have nothing to fear.
Often, grad schools will provide a reference form that you are to give each of your referees. The to-waive-or-not-to-waive question will be on that form, and you will need to sign below. Whichever way you choose, do select and sign. Your referee cannot proceed without this signature, and it will be counterproductive for you if she has to run you down to get the signature. If she goes ahead and sends the letter without your signature, that lack will be duly noted at the grad school, and you will appear to be either careless or naive ... not good.
You should fill out any requested information that pertains to you on the reference form (usually your name, social security number, program to which you're applying). Believe it or not, I have now and then had to fill in some students' personal information because I couldn't get hold of them and their deadlines were coming close!
Do not fill out the information pertaining to your referee — you might unknowingly misspell the person's name or title, for example. Again, you can appear careless or naive if the referees have to correct the spelling of their names.
Important: type up a sheet listing the institutions to which you are applying, when their individual deadlines are, whether or not a reference form must be included with the letter, and whether the letter must be sent separately to the institution or the letter must be sent with your application in an envelope that has been signed on the flap (so the grad school can be certain you have not seen the letter).
As I mentioned above, include in writing the course(s) you have taken with the professor, when you took the course(s), and what grade(s) you earned. Include as well your specialized résumé for the letters, and any guidance you want to offer each referee about what you want emphasized in each of their letters. If one of your referees is connected to one of your grad schools, remind that referee to mention the connection.
Very important: provide pre-addressed and stamped business-size envelopes so that all your referee will have to do is respond to any items on the reference form and attach her letter. Don't assume that the referee will simply use department letterhead envelopes, address them, and mail them on the department's "dime." Providing addressed and stamped envelopes is common protocol for letters of reference. You risk annoying your referee if you don't provide them — believe me, you don't want referees to be annoyed while they are writing your letters.
The important factor is to make your referee's job as easy as possible. Look at this way: if each student asks each referee for five to ten letters (i.e., for five to ten programs), and each referee is approached by twenty students, that's 100-200 letters per referee! Making the referee's job easier will help her stay positive and write the best possible letter for you.
One final point... as I said above, your referee could be working on a large pile of letters. And, as you know, your professors are busy, and often the letters need to be done during a difficult time of the semester. Again, don't "rely on the kindness of strangers." Do check in with your professor from time to time to make sure your letter gets completed before the deadline. Your professor won't mind if you don't check in too often. Be gentle when you do it, but be firm. Your future could rest on these letters of reference.
Okay? Best of luck!
Checklist for Letters of Recommendation