Grad School Series: Letters of Recommendation
Updated: Nov 3, 2022
This is a shorter, follow-up post to How to Apply to Graduate School focusing specifically on letters of recommendation. This post is supposed to help with the grad school application process, but applies much more broadly (e.g., grants, internships, jobs, scholarships, other programs).
Letters of Recommendation (LOR) are an important part of the graduate school application. When reviewing applications, I heavily consider the LORs because they can give a lot of information about the student in the academic environment.
Picking a Letter Writer
The most important part of getting a LOR is picking an appropriate letter writer. You want two primary things in a letter writer:
1. A professor/supervisor who knows who you are; and
2. A professor/supervisor who can say good things about you!
It is really important that both of those elements are true – you do not want to ask for a letter from someone who does not know you. For example, I get a lot of students who were in a large course with me asking for LORs. If they were not active in my course or come to my office hours, the best I can do in a LOR is say “they got an A in the course” (or worse!). You do not want a LOR who cannot talk about you as a person and can say positive things about you.
It is great if you can get a letter writer who is relevant to or even well-known in the field you are trying to enter, but the two factors above are the most important. If you have the choice between a more relevant person who does not know you/can’t say good things about you and a less relevant person who knows you well and can speak about you positively, pick the one who knows you.
For graduate school, you usually need 3 LORs. For most research-focused MA or PhD programs, I recommend having:
Second research-focused LOR or skill focused LOR
The first one should be written by your research supervisor (see below section about getting involved in research). The second can be written by someone who you have taken a class with or has otherwise seen your academic achievement (e.g., if you did an honors project with someone). However, you should not ask someone who can ONLY speak about the grade you received. Make sure you are active in class or attending office hours so they know who you are (i.e., fit the 2 primary requirements). The third one can be from a second research supervisor (see below) or another boss/supervisor. Often this third person might be a little more of a stretch in terms of relevance, but as long as they fulfill the two primary requirements and can speak about your transferrable skills, that should not be a problem.
If you ask someone to be your letter writer and they are at all hesitant, you should reconsider. You want strong letters, and if someone is hesitant to write you a letter for whatever reason, you probably do not want one from that person unless you have no other options. However, if it is your research supervisor, you’ll definitely want to get more information about why they are hesitant since it is important to have a letter from that person.
Getting Involved in Research Labs
The best way to get a good letter writer is to get involved. For most graduate school programs, it is good to have at least one person who can talk about you in a research capacity. This means you should get involved in at least one research lab as early as possible! As a research supervisor, I love having first year students in my lab because I have time to train them. The earlier students get involved, the more in-depth they can go in my research. For example I have an amazing research assistant who got involved in my lab as a freshman in college. Her first year was spent learning the literature and the basics of research. At the beginning of Year 2, she had started running her own study. At the end of Year 2, she presented preliminary data at a national conference. Now, in Year 4, we are about to submit a manuscript with her as a co-author. Not only will she have a lot to talk about in a personal statement or interview, but my letter of recommendation will also be very strong because I’ve worked with her for so long. Many labs also have minimum commitment requirements as it takes a lot of time to train students.
Get involved in research and get involved early – it will go a long way for your LOR and your whole packet.
Students often ask me how many labs they should be in, often thinking that more labs = more experience and more LORs. I advise students to be careful in over-committing to labs. You should only be in a lab if you can fully commit to it. Over-committing can backfire and result in two mediocre (or bad) LORs. Plus, it can also limit your ability to exceed in the lab. That being said, I have also had some great students who have been in two labs; but, this usually only works for students who are very organized, self-motivated and efficient. If you are fully able to commit to two labs, then it can be a very good idea to get additional research experience, which helps improve your research skills, gives you more research to talk about, and can help you narrow down the path you want to follow.
Other times, students recognize that they only should be in one lab, but want to know if they should leave one lab for another. Transferring labs can be a good option, but it depends on the circumstances. Remember, adjusting to a lab can take a lot of time. So transferring labs can limit your ability to excel in one. But, it might be a good idea to transfer labs if a) your first lab has a bad environment (either in terms of your mental health or skill development), or b) you find a lab that better fits your research interests. When I was in college, I transferred from a cognitive research lab to a psychology-law lab – this was a really good decision since I was moving to a lab that better suited my research interests and prepared me for graduate school. One of my recent students did the same thing. She was interested in social psychology and law, which had not been available at UTEP before I was here. When I came to UTEP, she transferred to my lab. She used the research skills she had from the first lab to quickly adjust to my lab. Even though she was a junior, she used her previous research training to help design a project, submit for (and receive) funding, and present it at a national conference during her first year in my lab. In her senior year, she completed an honors thesis with me. She just started a PhD program in a great legal psychology program!
Asking for a LOR
Once you’ve decided on your letter writers, you have to ask for a letter. You can either set up an in-person appointment or send a professional email request. You’ll want to ask with plenty of time for the person to write a letter. There are several things you want to include in the request or follow up with after the person agrees, including:
A resume or CV
An unofficial transcript
Information about what you’re applying for and why
Information about the deadline
Your contact information
Contact information for the place(s) where you are submitting
Shared Excel/Google Sheet with all of the information for the places you're applying (added 11/3/22)
If the person agrees, you should also ask them when and how they would like to be reminded about the letter. You do not want to be annoying about it, but you also want to make sure that it gets submitted.
You’ll also want to ask about what other information they want/need. Some professors might require you to draft the LOR for them and they’ll edit it. The Professor is In has some good information about writing a LOR if you encounter this issue.
If there is any required paperwork, you’ll want to provide that paperwork. Fill out ALL of the information you can on the paperwork (e.g., contact information, return address, etc.) except the recommendation and signature. Most applications now are online/via email, but if it is a paper submission, you’ll also want to provide stamped, addressed envelopes with printed versions of the forms.
One recent tip that came up is that it is often very helpful to create a spreadsheet with all of this information and share it with your letter writers. This can help track deadlines and keep all of the information in the same place. I did this when I was applying for grad school and then more recently on the job market. If you keep it on a shared server (or Google Sheets), you can update it in real time. You can track things like: Deadlines, whether or not letters have been received from each writer, contact information for the application, and any specific instructions for the school (e.g., information to make sure to include, where to submit, etc.).
Getting a LOR from Dr. Reed
Although this post provides general advice, you might also be directed here if you are asking me (Dr. Reed) for a LOR for graduate school, grant applications, other job applications, etc.
Usually, I only write LORs for students who are in my research lab or who have taken at least two classes with me. If you have only taken courses with me, then it is important that I know you from your participation in class or you coming to office hours. As I indicate in the lab manual, research assistants who have been in the lab for over a year can expect a LOR. If you have not been in lab for a year, still discuss it with me. In all situations, I can write better LOR for students who do strong work (i.e., get As in my courses or are excellent research assistants).
Once I have agreed to write you a LOR, give me ALL the following materials at least THREE weeks before the final deadline:
Unofficial transcript – note which classes you took with me
A one page summary of what you are applying for, why you are applying, and why you would be great at it. Your personal statement works if you are done with it
A list of deadlines for all applications, including dates and times (with time zones!).
Your contact information (email, phone)
Any paperwork completely filled out with everything except my recommendation and signature
Physical copies with addressed, stamped envelopes if you need something mailed
Please remind me about your letter! Regular reminders immediately before the letter is due are extremely helpful. Unless I have told you I submitted it, I encourage reminders 1 week, 2 days, 1 day before, and then the day of.