Recommendations from faculty and work supervisors are an important part of the advanced degree application. Each program will usually specify who should write the recommendations and how many you will need to submit, but there are some general rules. Most programs want three recommendations, although some allow for more and some require more. If you are applying for an academic degree such as a PhD or Master’s in a scholarly discipline, your potential programs will want professors who are familiar with your research and writing capabilities as well as your academic promise. 

Professional degree programs such as a Master in Public Health or MBA may want letters from both academics who know your work as a student and also employers who understand your on-the-job capabilities and your ability to work collaboratively. Healthcare programs such as medical and dental school, physician assistant and nursing programs and veterinary schools all have very specific requirements about recommendation letters and who should provide your references.

Most universities and schools now use an online recommendation portal. Some programs have a recommendation form available at the portal that asks each reference to rate your abilities in various areas such as academic promise, written expression, oral expression and creativity. The categories will vary but you get the idea. The form might also ask how the recommender knows you and for what length of time. In addition to the form, many graduate schools will accept letters of recommendation and some only want letters.

Professors and others you ask for recommendations should write these on their professional letterhead and then upload to the online portal. However, some programs still require that paper letters are sent to their address. In this case, it is a courtesy to provide a stamped and addressed letter for anyone who is going to write you a recommendation. Make sure that your references get everything they need from you: any forms, information they need about you, envelopes as needed and a clear deadline for the recommendation.

Ideally, it is best to have references that know you well or at least have one reference that can summarize your capabilities and accomplishments for a period of time. For alumni of care, a recommendation from someone who can put your accomplishments into the context of the challenges you have faced can make a very compelling reference. Recommendations from professors in whose classes you did well or with whom you have discussed your interests are always a good choice. It is also recommended that you give your references your Statement of Purpose so they know your latest thinking on where you are headed. You might have made a good connection with a professor in your freshman year, but haven’t been able to take another class with that person since that time. They still may be able to write you an excellent recommendation if you get them up to speed on what you have done since that time and what you want to accomplish in your future. Many (not all) professors are happy to help students if you provide them with information and enough time to complete the task.

Employers or internship advisors/mentors are also good references particularly if you are applying for a discipline which relates to that work. For example, if you are applying for an MSW and you worked at a senior center or volunteered at a group home, a supervisor from either one of those positions would make an excellent reference as they could attest to your engagement with the work and your strength in that capacity. Despite all your hard work to line up excellent references, you still may have people that, for one reason or another, end up not following through and leaving you short a recommendation letter. There are too many stories of students who were relying on recommendations and then a professor forgot or got too busy to write the letter. You want to consider having backup references who you can ask if others don’t come through.

Important: Make sure you are confident enough to ask your potential reference if they are going to write you an excellent recommendation. You most likely will be asked to waive your right to see the final letter in order for the receiving institution to feel they are getting an honest assessment. Make sure your reference is presenting you well and will speak highly of your accomplishments.

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