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Graduate School - Letters of Recommendation

How important are letters of recommendation?

Letters of recommendation are required for almost every graduate school application and are a very important part of the application process. Usually grades and test scores factor in most heavily; however, your letters of recommendation could be the deciding factor in the admission process.

How many letters of recommendation do I need?

Although it can vary, generally, you will be asked for three letters. We recommend that you send only the number of letters requested. Admissions committees do not have enough time to read extra credentials.

Whom should I ask for letters of recommendation?

The best letter writers are those that know you well and can provide an evaluation of your ability to perform and succeed at the graduate level.

Graduate and professional school admissions people tell us the following make the best letter writers:

  • Someone who knows you well
  • Someone with the title of "Professor"
  • Someone who is a professor at the school granting your baccalaureate degree
  • Someone who has earned the degree which you are seeking in your graduate work
  • Someone with an advanced degree who has supervised you in a job or internship aligned with the graduate program you are pursuing (e.g., Public Health, Social Work, Business Administration, etc.)
  • Someone who has academically evaluated you in an upper-division class
  • Note: Letters from family friends, political figures, and the like are discouraged and, in fact, may be detrimental.

How do I approach potential letter writers?

First, make a list of professors and/or supervisors who will be your best advocates. Then, set up an appointment to discuss your request in person. Do not make the request via email. Be prepared to articulate your interest and reasons for attending graduate school.

Letters of recommendation are written strictly on a voluntary basis. The best approach is to ask potential letter writers if they are willing to write you a strong letter. If you sense reluctance or the answer is no, ask someone else.

When should I approach letter writers? What if I plan to take some time off before I go to graduate school?

Professors and supervisors are generally pleased to write on your behalf; however, they are usually involved in many activities. Faculty are especially busy during the months of November and December. Be considerate of your letter writersí time and approach them at least two months before you need the letter.

If you plan to take some time off before going to graduate school, donít wait until you want to apply to graduate school to ask for letters. Your professors could be on sabbatical, or you may not be fresh in their minds anymore. So, ask professors for a "general" letter of recommendation before you leave Cal and place their letters in a safe place, like the Career Centerís Letter Service. When you are ready to apply to graduate school, contact professors again, and ask them to update your letters.

How can I go about getting good letters of recommendation?

Since your best letters will come from those who know you well, make an effort to get to know your professors and/or supervisors. A few ways you can do this are to speak up in class, select courses with small class sizes, take more than one class from a professor, do research for a professor, take on optional projects, and regularly attend office hours.

The best strategy you can use to get a good letter of recommendation, particularly if a professor hasn't known you long, is to provide your letter writer with ample information about you. This way, you will get a letter that includes concrete details about you, instead of a letter that contains only your grade, which is of limited value.

What information do my letter writers need to write good letters?

You can help your letter writers write enlightening letters by giving each of them a portfolio comprised of:

  1. A cover note that includes:

    • Information on how to get in touch with you in case they need to reach you
    • What you would like emphasized in each letter
    • A list of schools to which you are applying, and due dates, with the earliest due date at the top
    • Any other information that is relevant
    • Open and close your note with thanks and acknowledgement that the letter writerís time is valuable and that this letter is important to your professional future.
  2. Recommendation forms - To make it easy for your letter writer to complete forms in a timely manner, complete the following:

    • Applicant information typed in
    • Recommenderís name, title, contact info (telephone, fax, address etc) typed in
  3. Your unofficial (telebears) transcripts (note courses you took with them)
  4. A draft of your statement of purpose
  5. A copy of your best work in the course (with instructor comments on it), lab evaluations, projects, etc.
  6. Your resume
  7. Stamped and addressed envelopes to send letters and forms directly to the Career Center Letter Service or schools of your choice.

My GSI really knows me; can I use her letter?

Yes, you can, but as a general rule, it is better to have letters written by professors rather than GSIs. The professor may be in a better position to evaluate you and to compare you to current and previous classes of students. GSIs often write fine letters and frequently write parts or all of letters which professors sign or co-sign. Having a GSIís letter co-signed by a professor adds to its strength, especially if the professor can add useful comments.

However, it is better to have a strong letter from a GSI than a letter from a professor that says little or nothing. Ultimately, because some graduate schools specifically state that they will only accept letters from professors, it is in your best interest to get to know your professors well enough so that they can write a strong recommendation letter for you.

If you must get a letter from a GSI, strategize with the GSI to have her draft a letter of evaluation, then forward it to the professor, using the pronoun "we" instead of "I." For example, she could write, "We saw Mr. Conner struggle before the midterm and we were impressed with his tenacity and capacity to master the material." Then, the letter can be signed by two people on the same line at the bottom of the page.

In addition, sometimes GSIs are willing to provide some written insight or notes to the letter writer so that the letter can be written or finished and signed solely by the faculty member. You will need to give your portfolio to both the GSI and the professor and see how they want to do business.

Do graduate schools care if letters are confidential or not?

In general, graduate programs prefer confidential letters. Admissions officials say that it displays more confidence on the part of the applicant if letters are "confidential" (meaning you, the applicant cannot see the letter). The Letter Service is required to indicate on the letter if it is confidential or non-confidential. More about confidential letters.

Why should I use the Letter Service at the Career Center?

If you are applying to more than three schools, or you think you want your letters held for other opportunities (like law school) in the future, you should plan to use the Letter Service. Your letter writers will write one letter and fill out one form, rather than filling out a different form for every application. Check out tips for you and guidelines to help your letter writer.

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This page last updated 11/23/2010 (jw)