Applying — Reference Letters

Asking for a reference letter can be a stressful process.  This is because you know how important letters of recommendation are for gaining admission to a grad program

So how should you go about getting letters of recommendation?

Let’s start by talking about what a letter of recommendation contains.  There are typically 2 parts: a rating section and a written letter.  The rating section covers areas such as:

  • Intellectual Ability
  • Originality
  • Initiative
  • Work habits
  • Potential teaching ability
  • Potential research ability

The MiNDS reference form then asks for a letter:

Please provide your assessment of the applicant’s potential for graduate work. As part of that, specific indications of accomplishments to date or comparisons with other students who have come to McMaster would be most useful.

Ideally you want to asks someone for a reference letter who knows you well enough to address most if not all of these aspects of the evaluation.

Let’s discuss an easy situation where you have multiple potential letter writers.  Who should you choose to ask?  First you need to think about the program you are applying to and what the focus is for that program.  If it is a research focused graduate program like MiNDS then approach Professors that know about your research ability and potential.   Ask Professors that are most familiar with your skills and potential in the areas that are key for admission to the program.

Be sure to help the Professor as much as possible with relevant information that they can use when writing a letter.  This includes a copy of your transcripts, CV, and statement of interest.  I ask to meet with students that would like me to write a letter for them.  I want to chat with them to find out more about why they are applying to the program.  Be honest about your motivation to apply to the programs, that is very helpful to the referee and allows them to write a letter that is specific to you.

What kind of things should you avoid when asking for a letter of reference?  First, most graduate program expect the letters to come from fellow colleagues and peers.  This means Professors for most academic graduate programs or others senior individuals in the same profession (eg. a Senior scientist at a research institute or pharma company).  It is not a good idea to ask graduate students or postdoc for letters.  Typically those individuals do not have the experience to address the issue that are key for admission.  You also should not ask a non-academic reference to write a letter unless the program specifically asks.  Your boss at your summer job does not know about the aspects of your abilities and potential that grad programs evaluate when selecting students for admission.

Look at the grad program website for the evaluation criteria.  For the MiNDS program we have a pretty standard set of areas that are evaluated.

The Admissions committee will review applications to identify promising candidates.

  • The selection is based on:
  • academic success,
  • research experience,
  • statement of research interests,
  • and letters of recommendation.

The letter of recommendation is a very important part of the evaluation so be sure to give it careful thought.

Here are a few questions to ask yourself, and perhaps the potential referee, before asking for a letter:

  • Do they know me well enough to write a strong letter?
  • Does that individual write strong letters of recommendation?
  • Do they have time or will they make time to write a strong letter of recommendation for me?

It is crunch time right now for letters of recommendation, but what can you do for the future?  An important thing to do is to talk with your Professors about your career plans well before you need a letter.  Get their input and suggestions about your plans.  Interact with your Professors, we want our students to succeed and are willing to help them achieve their goals.  You need to share those goals with us, then we can bring all of our skill and experience with writing and evaluating letters of recommendation to help you succeed.


2 responses to “Applying — Reference Letters

  1. Pingback: Reference letters « GRADsKool

  2. Pingback: GRADsKool 2010 in review | GRADsKool

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