Asking for Letters of Recommendation

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Gathering letters of recommendation is the most mysterious part of any graduate school application. Unlike your grades, standardized test scores or essays, the bulk of the work will be done for you and behind closed doors, which can be both a curse and a blessing. The process of asking for letters of recommendation can produce anxiety and uncertainty, but strong letters of recommendation can help you stand out among other qualified applicants, making you far more memorable than an impressive set of numbers. What’s more, letters of recommendation are based on relationships. They’re the only part of your evaluation (aside from essays, perhaps) that can really indicate how you work with others — and that’s what teaching is all about.


Who to Ask

There are a number of factors you should consider when deciding who to ask to write your letters of recommendation. The best letter writers will be people who have worked closely enough with you to know you well, who have earned the degree you are applying for or worked in a related field, and who express enthusiasm about writing your letter. A letter of recommendation from a particularly reputable professional will only help if that person knows you well enough to write a detailed and enthusiastic letter. You’re much better off asking an unknown professor who cares about you than pulling strings to get a member of the Obama administration to put in a lukewarm word for you.

How to Ask

Asking for a letter of recommendation is a task that should be handled with delicacy and tact. Rule number one is to ask early. Remember that your professors have classes to teach and that they get even busier as the semester progresses. It is best to ask in person and to frame the question within a conversation about how earning a master’s degree in education will help you to realize your long term goals. You should also be careful to provide your potential letter writer an out: e.g. “If you’re not too busy…” If he or she expresses the slightest hesitation, ask someone else. Admissions officers will quickly recognize a carelessly written or formulaic letter.

Managing Your Letter Writers

Good letter writers tend to have reputations as such, and they generally end up writing many letters each application season. As a result, some of them have organized processes for letter writing, but others will depend on you to keep them abreast of deadlines and other developments. Even those who are more organized almost always appreciate friendly and thoughtful reminders. Make sure to find out what information they need (and supply them with any they don’t know they need), such as the names and addresses of schools, application deadlines and links to online recommendation systems. It’s a good idea to keep them up to date with breaking news about your own life too, such as promotions or academic awards.

Although the process of requesting letters and managing your letter writers can begin to feel like a headache when you’re also worried about GRE prep and midterm scores, it is also something that most applicants and letter writers end up feeling positively about. The process hinges on a series of conversations between you and your mentors about your past accomplishments and future goals. These conversations themselves will help to build confidence, and they can even help to clarify your thinking about the future. Although you may never see the letters that are written as a result, you can be certain that they are singing your praises — and they might even be the deciding factor tipping the admissions scales in your favor!

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