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What Should a Letter of Recommendation for Graduate School Include?

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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 30 October 2016
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A letter of recommendation for graduate school is a part of what applicants present to an admission department to apply for acceptance to a program. Grades or test scores are relatively impersonal, and though they attest to student aptitude, they don’t discuss the personal features of the graduate student. While letters might briefly detail a student’s academic aptitude, they’re really intended to be more personal accounts of the student and to give a comprehensive, more colorful picture of how that student will fit in any graduate program.

Before discussing the content of a letter, it’s first important that students think carefully about the professors they ask to write a letter of recommendation for graduate school. One consideration is whether professors asked have any association with the school(s) to which the student is applying. In competitive schools, a letter from someone with connections to that school may speak volumes. Equally, or perhaps even more important, is thinking about how well the professor knows the student. A warm personal letter about accomplishments or graduate school readiness comes more easily from professors who know and like the student.

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In making a request for a recommendation, students can help professors add important details to a letter of recommendation for graduate school by sending reminders of work completed. Requests for letters, which should be made at least a month before they’re needed, should include transcripts, term papers, lists of all classes taken with the professor and summary of other activities the professor and student pursued together. The point is to give the letter writer as many personal details as possible, which can help jog the memory or furnish content for the recommendation. Even a scribbled remark on a term paper may flower into a complementary statement about the student.

The professor’s job is to write a highly personal letter of recommendation for graduate school that is fueled with examples of the student’s gifts. With information like term paper grades and personal knowledge of the student, it’s fairly easy to create a one or two page letter that speaks to the student’s strengths. Some specific qualities sought by graduate schools include maturity, autonomy, cooperation, originality, and research ability. Concrete examples of how the student excels in these areas are exceptionally valuable.

What should not be included in a letter of recommendation for graduate school are a lot of statements about the student’s need to improve. If a teacher feels uncomfortable with a student’s readiness for graduate school, he might simply state to the student that he cannot make a recommendation. Professors put their own reputation on the line when they recommend students; writing a dishonest appraisal isn’t advised.

For students, this illustrates the necessity to cultivate strong relationships with professors and work on improving performance. Undergraduate students should view teachers as resources, get to know them during office hours, and work on making themselves pleasantly memorable. The teachers most likely to give the strongest recommendations are those who know the student well.

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