While the essay is the single most important component of any application, strong letters of recommendation can also have a decisive effect on whether or not you receive an offer.
So how do you get the best rec letters?
What this means is, even if you feel like you have a better rapport with your graduate student instructor (who is still studying for her PhD) or received your best grades from a likable lecturer, the fact remains that there is an academic hierarchy and you need to go to the top of the totem pole.
However, that doesn't mean you have to seek out three letters of recommendation from the famous but elusive professors with whom you've barely spoken.
Instead, be strategic about your letter requests. If you are asked to submit three letters, get one from an instructor who knows you very well, regardless of their professional rank, and two from higher-ranking professors.
Don't worry - everyone knows the drill. If a professor doesn't know you that well, it would be better for you to arrange an in-person meeting and request the letter during a real-time discussion, so the letter writer can better understand why you are applying to the program and what you would like for them to touch on in their recommendation.
Before I learned about the intricacies of a recommendation letter writer's status, I've had some wonderfully scrupulous lower-ranking instructors suggest I go with someone higher up the ladder to make my application more competitive.
So don't think you will offend your favorite adjunct faculty member if you don't ask her to write a letter for you. She knows how it works.
In some rare cases, you will be forced to request a letter with a week or two's notice. In the fall of 2012 a fellowship opportunity arose for myself and three other classmates to apply to. Our professors understood why the process was rushed and obliged with last-minute rec letters.
I've already discussed that an in-person meeting is more appropriate when approaching a professor you do not know very well to write your letter. Sitting down with the prospective letter writer lets him ask you questions about the program, why you are applying, how you are prepared to succeed if you are selected, and vocalize anything in particular you want mentioned in the letter.
Email is fine as well, sent a month before a deadline, written in a semi-formal voice. You are, after all, asking someone to do something for you (and yes, it's their job, but still, you are adding to an instructor's to-do list).
Send all of the information they need the first time around and in an organized fashion: the names of places or scholarships you are applying for, corresponding deadlines, links to where they can submit their recommendation letters online, and any special instructions.
Hey! I don't know if you remember me, but I was in your European History 432 class last semester and now I'm trying to get into grad school. I have five schools so far and I need a recommendation letter? Would you mind writing it??? It's due at the end of this week, which I know is soon, but that would be great! Thanks so much for your help :)
- Request an in-person meeting if you were not close with the instructor
- Which schools? What are the deadlines?
- How does the instructor submit her letters?
- Don't assume the answer is yes. Give them a chance to say yes or no.
- No emoticons, ever (never ever ever) in formal correspondence
Dear Professor So-and-So,
My name is Jessica Roberts and I was in your European History 432 class last semester (I usually sat in the third row, on the left side of the room). I am interested in continuing my studies of History at the graduate level and have five schools I am prepared to apply to. Would it be possible for us to meet this week to discuss the possibility of you writing a letter of recommendation for me?
I can bring a hard copy to the meeting, but in case you are interested, I have attached a list of these schools, along with their respective deadlines and submitting information.
The importance of following through can't be stressed enough - if you fail to do what you say you're going to without good reason, those professors will probably decline to write recommendations for you in the future.
It is. As long as you are asking respectfully and in advance, there is no reason to feel bad about requesting a letter from any of your instructors.
Sometimes instructors hesitate to accept because, as described, they think are too low-ranking and want to see you put forth the most competitive applications.
In more rare cases, the professor might have an ideological or moral conflict with writing a letter of recommendation (for example, a professor who is a dedicated advocate for animal welfare might be uncomfortable writing a recommendation for a student to win a research position doing animal testing).
And in some cases, the professor might feel like you are not a good applicant and will be honest with you about why not.
However, in most cases, instructors understand this is part of their job and are happy to assist students in obtaining new academic and professional goals, so don't be shy about asking for letters of recommendation when you need them.