Advice about Applications and Letters of Recommendation
If you want to go to graduate school, get a job, apply for a fellowship, or do anything else that requires a letter of recommendation from a teacher or other professional ... follow these instructions to get the best possible letter, a letter that makes a committee as excited as someone who just received an adorable kitten in a box.
How to Get the Right Kind of LETTER OF RECOMMENDATION
It is in your best interest to make it as easy as possible for a letter writer (professor, boss, etc.) to assess your skills and highlight what’s best in your work. You are making an argument about why you’re an ideal candidate, and you want the recommender to help you make that argument.
So, with that in mind, do everything you can to make a good argument as soon as the person agrees to write a letter.
(And to back up for a minute: First ask, ideally in person rather than in email, whether the person feels able to “write the kind of letter that will help me succeed”—that is, whether the letter will be good and strong and champion you personally, rather than a bit of boilerplate ripped out of the printer.)
It goes without saying, and yet I must say it: You really should collect your work from your teachers every semester. If you leave it behind, they end up disposing of it, and they don’t have their own notes to look at anymore. They also have to reread your body of work, and the additional time you’re asking them to invest can be a big imposition when everyone has twenty or thirty letters to write in a month.
Here's what I ask of everyone who needs a letter:
- a list of class(es) you took from me and when—and what your grades were (not just the final grades; grades on individual assignments)
- samples of work from classes taken with me, ideally with my comments showing;
- a summary of comments made on the work done--excerpts from written remarks (I tend to write a lot), improvements noted, comments on oral presentations;
- a detailed paragraph explaining what drives you toward further study and what you hope it will help you accomplish;
- a statement about what you think, at this moment, you would most like to study in depth--no one holds you to your initial statement of purpose (if that were the case, I'd have a Ph.D. in French Renaissance prose), but the SOP shows your ability to write persuasively and intellectually, so it's important;
- some current work of which you're proud, if it's been a long time since you took a class from me (again, it's helpful to have the grader's praiseful comments showing--they ease the burden of having to read line by line);
- a list of schools to which you're applying and their deadlines for submitting letters. These days, most schools send a recommender an email with a link for uploading a recommendation; if you're applying somewhere that doesn't use this method, let your recommender know how s/he should get the letter to the right people.
Remember that your recommenders are doing dozens of these letters at a time. You will increase their goodwill toward you if you fill out as much of each form for them as you can--that means putting in the person's name, rank, address, etc. We all get very tired of writing out the basic information over and over (even more tired than you do when you're applying to five places).
A note on the statement of purpose (SOP):
Your application will include a statement of purpose--a mini-essay or letter about what you want to accomplish at the program to which you're applying.
Applications to grad school are different than what you write for college; it's not so much about "I'm a strong individual who loves to read Jane Austen" as it is about "I have proven my strength as a scholar by doing x and y, and I intend to examine Austen's use of wit and irony in social comedy."
Bear in mind that programs receive hundreds and sometimes thousands of applications every year (perhaps thousands in an MFA for fiction alone). Reviewers have limited time in which to make a decision, so you have limited time in which to win them over. Here are a couple of strategies:
- Don't wait till the end of a paragraph to make your strongest point about yourself. Front-load each paragraph by spotlighting your qualifications and/or achievements in a certain area. Reviewers looking at lots of applications may skim by reading just the first lines of every paragraph, so make sure that your first lines tell the story you want to tell about yourself.
- Make yourself as professional as possible. That means good grammar, punctuation, legible font, dark print (if submitting a paper application). Show that you take the situation seriously. Even if you're applying for an academic program, you are still applying for a job. The job in that case is Being a Student and the Next Big Thing.
If you're applying for a program in creative writing, you are still making an argument about yourself as a candidate. Your creative work will be the most important part of your application, but in your statement of purpose you'll also need to reflect on what makes your work special and what you hope to learn through joining a program--perhaps even mentioning potential mentors who teach in the program. (Of course, there's a chance an interesting mentor might have moved to another job by the time you arrive, so don't overenthuse about one sparkly individual or you'll hurt your chances.) So you might also refer to Jane Austen's social comedy--showing you have a good grounding in literature--and then add a bit about how you're going to adopt or adapt her techniques as you write social comedies for the modern world (or the 1920s, or the future, depending on your interests).
Finally: Get feedback on your application letter, statement of purpose, etc. Whenever I agree to write a reference letter, I also offer to read over statements of purpose and letters of application, to help a person frame the kind of application that will succeed. I strongly advise you to have at least one of your mentors read your application letter and/or SOP with a view to strengthening your case. It's generally a good idea to show this document to all of your recommenders so they know your plans and can write the sort of solid, well-informed letter that will help you get what you want.
This guide may give the impression you have a daunting amount to do, and in fact you have. BUT you want to make the best impression possible, give yourself the best possible chance in a competitive world. This is the real world; this is professional life. So the list I provide here will help as you prepare your submission materials as a whole.
Remember that many people don’t get into the program or job they want the first time; it can take more than one round to make it through. Keep learning and growing, and don’t give up if you don’t succeed in your very first application.
Remember, also, to follow up with your recommenders to let them know how your application went. We invest time in you; if we’ve written for you, it means we care about you. So stay in touch!
Now here are some more cat photos to alleviate the anxiety.