Faculty Recommendations: Points of Reference
Graduate school recommendations really come into play when an admissions committee is trying to decide between you and one or more other candidates. Most departments will request three to five letters of recommendation.
Who should you ask for letters of recommendation? At least one letter, and preferably two or more, should come from faculty members in your major field. You may also wish to obtain a recommendation from a professor in an unrelated discipline (perhaps your minor field) in order to show the breadth of your academic interests.
These guidelines can give you the edge:
Begin developing a relationship with your recommenders several quarters, or even years, before you need the pieces of paper. It's important that they know several facets about you: your character, your course work, your initiative, and your communication skills. Keep them up to date on your achievements, either verbally or in writing.
Determine who will be your best advocates. If you hear reticence --complaints about not having enough time to write the recommendations or not knowing you well enough or long enough--be ready to back off. If someone feels forced into writing you a recommendation, you can bet it will be less than glowing.
Discuss the references with your recommenders. Inform them of any points you would particularly like to get across. Ask them to use as many specific examples as possible.
Consider using the recommendation as a place in which to explain away a negative that you didn't address in the main essay (e.g., a bad grade.) The recommendation also could be a place to highlight a smaller accomplishment that you didn't include elsewhere in the application.
Give your recommenders' telephone numbers on applications. More than ever, admissions officers are inclined to place a phone call to a recommender for more details.
Don't use references from friends or relatives, or recommendations from people who do not know you well.
Give your recommenders all of the necessary forms, plus addressed, stamped envelopes.
Give your recommenders at least a month in which to write the reference and ask them to meet a deadline.
Let the recommender know when you will submit your applications so he or she can send the reference letters at the same time.
Reference letters can be confidential or non-confidential. Admissions officers may give more credence to a reference if you've waived your right to read it; you will need to decide the advantages or disadvantages of either choice.