Letter of Recommendation
Ok, so you nailed your GRE’s, have gained relevant research and volunteer experience, and have a great GPA… Now you need to put the icing on the cake by getting some killer letters of recommendation. Don’t underestimate the importance of having excellent letters of recommendation from well-respected professionals. The fact that a professional is willing to put their reputation on the line for you is a huge vote of confidence to a prospective selection committee. Here’s a good rule to follow when choosing whom to ask for a letter of recommendation, “A great letter from the best person”. The most important thing is to get a great letter, and the second most important thing is to find the best person who will write you a great letter. For example, say you’re trying to decide between Professor A, Professor B, and Professor C for your first letter of recommendation. Professor A is a distinguished professor and is president of several professional organizations. You took his class sophomore year and made an “A”. Professor B is an associate professor and has actively published and presented within his Division of APA. You were his research assistant for 4 semesters and he thinks you have potential to be a future leader in your field. Professor C is a full professor who has recently received an NIH grant. You were very productive (also slightly insane to take this much work) and served in her lab for 3 semesters. She says you were “the most productive undergraduate student” she’s ever had. Ok, let’s apply the first part of the rule, “a great letter”. Professors B and C can provide you with a great letter, while the most Professor A can say about you is, “great student who earned an A, tells my they want to be XYZ when they grow up”. You haven’t done anything for Professor A, so why should he put his venerable reputation on the line for you? On the other hand, Professors B and C have a vested interest in your success. I once took a class with a professor who explained it like this (I’m paraphrasing here): “If I recommend a student who turns out to be a dud [he did actually use the word “dud”!], then I get a phone call from their faculty member telling me what’s happening. My recommendation is then worth less in the future to that institution.” Thus, faculty members have a vested interest in writing accurate letters recommendation. If you’re concerned about whether the faculty member has a positive opinion of you, I don’t think it’s unusual or poor form to ask them directly if they are willing/able to provide a “positive” letter of recommendation up front when you are deciding on which faculty members will write letters for you. I remember applying to an opportunity one year and needed one more letter, so I asked a professor who was my instructor for a fairly small class but was somebody I hadn’t worked with directly. He replied that he would be willing to write a letter, but the letter would be limited since I hadn’t worked with him outside of class. Asking in that way gives you the opportunity to know what sort of letter to expect from them and also gives them the opportunity to raise concerns.