The most important aspect of any recommendation is whom you ask to write it. “The question is not, ‘Can you write me a letter of recommendation?’ but ‘Can you write me a strong letter of recommendation?’” Most professors will answer the “strong letter” question honestly. This can save you from situations where a professor simply says you took a class with her and earned an A. Letters like that can actually hurt an application, particularly for internship recommendation letters. Most students have already shown they are capable of earning good grades if they’ve made it to grad school. So, seek recommendations that highlight such qualities as your character, dedication and drive.

Ask the Right People

  • Faculty with some familiarity with your academic potential are the best choices for letter writers. These individuals can comment on your academic accomplishments, involvement in the classroom, writing ability and potential for success in an academically-challenging graduate program.
  • Faculty who have supervised your research projects are also excellent letter writers. The research you have engaged in prior to your application does not need to match the research interests you may have in graduate school. The letter writer can speak to your understanding of the research process, critical thinking skills and writing abilities rather than your knowledge of a particular aspect of psychology.
  • Supervisors of your work are acceptable letter writers, but not preferred over academic faculty. Supervisors can speak to your work ethic, timeliness, ability to organize and manage multiple tasks, and your ability to get along with others.
  • You should avoid letters from family or friends, or other letters that only speak to your personal attributes.
  • It is preferable for applicants to offer letter writers information about the programs they are applying to so that they may be able to speak to specific qualities in their letters. Remind non-academic work supervisors about the importance of writing a detailed letter. Further, avoid asking faculty that you may have not had a specific connection with, such as a faculty member teaching a large undergraduate class.

Say Thanks

  • Email’s easy, but a hand-written note is usually the best way to thank letter-writers. A thoughtful thank you may also increase the chances for future recommendations or even mentoring down the road.
  • Anyone who writes you a recommendation letter cares about your future in the field and wants to see you succeed. So consider keeping your letter-writers updated on your progress—perhaps sending a quick e-mail about whether you got into a particular program, internship, postdoc or job.

Common Misconceptions

Don’t fall into some common traps of seeking recommendation letters. Many students, for example, may believe that having a “big name” on a letter of recommendation will increase their chances of acceptance. Yes, a letter from APA President James H. Bray, PhD, is impressive, but only if he’s intimately aware of your achievements, character and future goals. If not, find a faculty member who can argue convincingly on your behalf based on what he or she knows from working closely with you.

Be sure your letter-writers can be specific. Letters that are brief and general are the worst because they indicate that the letter writer is not familiar with the student. Also, don’t ask to see a recommendation letter after it is written because recipients of the letter may be concerned that this will make letter-writers less candid. If you select the right faculty, you should feel confident that the person will support your case.

Other Tips to Consider

  • For starters, let your letter-writers know how to send in their recommendations, since some schools require electronic submissions while others want hard copies. Give your writers a list of requirements and due dates for each program to help them stay organized.
  • Also, give them a summary of your achievements, research and other accomplishments. Even your closest advisers won’t remember everything you’ve done and how you did it. Be specific about the program or position you are applying for so the letter can be tailored to your abilities and potential fit.
  • Contact your letter-writers to ensure your letters are sent by the deadlines. Students should follow up within a week of the due date. Also, contact your grad programs and potential employers to confirm your dossier’s status. Just use some restraint when checking on your progress. You don’t want to bug them all the time, but a simple call or e-mail is in your best interest.

This web page was adapted from USM’s Counseling Psychology Programs’ Frequently Asked Questions and APA’s article titled

Rockin’ Recommendations.