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The 6 W's of Obtaining Reference Letters for Graduate & Professional Schools

Why

Letters of recommendation that assess your academic performance and personal achievement are very important to graduate and professional schools. Recommendations will carry different weight in the admissions process at each institution; however, most schools require recommendation letters and will not consider your application without them.

Who

The number of letters required and preferred authors will vary from school to school. Generally, faculty letters are preferred. You are encouraged to acquire letters from two faculty related to your discipline and a third faculty member from any area. Letters from employers or supervisors who have evaluated your work in research, employment or a setting related to your field of study are also valuable supplements to academic letters. Character reference letters from family, friends, politicians and personal health care providers are generally not solicited.

When

Your professors will be able to write the most effective letter shortly after you have completed their course. Some schools have created reference forms which are considered to be a part of the application form. Your references will appreciate it if you obtain application materials from all of the schools you are considering and bring all of the reference requests in at one time.

What

Help your references to prepare your recommendation. Arrange to meet with them to discuss your goals and the purpose of the recommendation. Ask directly whether or not they believe they could write a supportive recommendation. Provide information such as copies of your resume, transcript and course materials such as papers or exams you completed for class.

Where

The schools you are applying to may have specific instructions regarding how to send your reference materials. Be sure to follow these instructions or receive specific permission if you need to make alternate arrangements. If your recommendations have confidential status, you may need to ask your references to mail the recommendations directly to the schools you are applying to (you should supply an addressed, stamped envelope). Schools may prefer that you send the references in sealed envelopes along with your application.

Waive

Some schools prefer recommendations which are confidential (meaning you have waived your right to see it) because they feel that the confidential letter may be more candid than the non-confidential letter. You may wish to discuss this with your recommenders. Some undergraduate institutions will act as a neutral holding center for letters of recommendation. UMA does not offer this service.

Reference Letter Content Suggestions

Graduate and Professional schools have indicated a preference for the following information:

  • How long and under what circumstances have you know the applicant?
  • What are the chief attributes and deficiencies of the applicant as a potential student in the program?
  • How does the applicant interact with peers, staff and faculty?
  • To what extent is the applicant working to full potential?
  • How does the applicant compare with other students?
  • How does the applicant handle feedback/criticism?
  • How strongly motivated is the applicant toward the graduate/professional program?

Skills and characteristics professional schools are interested in include:

  • scholarship/quality of academic work
  • intellectual curiosity/future intellectual promise
  • integrity/honesty
  • consistency of performance
  • social skills
  • maturity
  • communication skills - written
  • communication skills - oral