In reviewing applicants for a graduate school program, a university’s office of admissions wants to feel like they know a candidate as well as possible.
A resume and list of education and work experience might tell a fairly good story, but well-done letters of recommendation can provide valuable perspective, additional insight and colorful details to help in deciding whether a prospective student is a good fit for the school.
How important is a great letter of recommendation?
“A well written recommendation letter provides admissions committees with information that isn't found elsewhere in the application,” notes an article on the education and information website ThoughtCo.
Together, your letters of recommendation (usually there are three) should cover your range of skills and vividly demonstrate not only how you are qualified but why you should be chosen over others who might be similarly qualified.
If you're applying to graduate school, thoroughly read the university's admissions page. “Strong recommendation letters from professional references” is usually one of five criteria for evaluating applicants in addition your professional resume, statement of intent, official transcripts, and your formal application.
In short, a great letter of recommendation will highlight your accomplishments, share relevant anecdotes, relate your personal qualities and character, and ultimately validate your personal essays.
Who should you ask for Letters of Recommendation?
Many mid-career professionals in their quest to accelerate their health care careers seek to earn a master's degree in health care.
Lets look at the distinction between letters of recommendation for traditional graduate school programs and executive-level programs.
Traditional Master's Degree
If you're returning to school less than five years since earning your undergraduate degree, professors are your best resource for quality letters of recommendation.
Given sufficient notice, they'll be able to most effectively convey your best qualities as a student, leader and aspiring professional.
Don't rely on professors for all of your recommendations. Whether it was a summer internship or your first job out of college, a letter from a former employer will strengthen your resume with a non-academic perspective.
Executive Master's Degrees
If you’re applying for an executive-level graduate school program, former or current colleagues are an inherently better resource than professors for three reasons.
- Most executive programs require years of work experience to prequalify.
- It may be difficult to arrange for letters from previous professors or administrators, due to the years of professional experience that have transpired since earning your bachelor’s degree.
- Your colleagues are better qualified to account your work experience.
Letters from Supervisors
Your professional supervisors or your managers are best suited to write a strong reference letters for you.
Supervisors are great for executive-level graduate school letters for a few reasons:
- they know you and your work well,
- they can authoritatively describe and praise your capabilities,
- they are well informed to discuss your career goals and potential.
Letters from Colleagues
Someone with whom you have worked side-by-side or in one-on-one situations can speak to your abilities and deliver the necessary credibility.
Before putting their name on an official application, ask the person if they're comfortable writing a complimentary letter for you.
If there is any sense of hesitation, don’t think twice about moving on to ask someone else. A lukewarm letter can come across nearly as bad as a negative one.
Request a Letter of Recommendation
There are several considerations to keep in mind:
1. Allow plenty of lead time
Nobody wants to be rushed. Some professors will decline your request if they feel they weren’t given sufficient notice; others, possible a former co-worker, may simply compose a letter without the thought and attention to detail they could have provided if given more time.
In terms of time of year, when to ask for recommendations is as important as how to ask. Summer, according to College Board, is when professors tend to have the most time to sit down and write recommendations.
2. How to ask for a recommendation
There are different schools of thought here.
Some believe the personal interaction of an in-person request is critical while others say email allows the letter-writer time to think about the request before responding.
On the other hand, if you've stayed in close contact with your potential letter writer, a phone call may be the most effective method, even if only to follow up an email.
Which ever method you decide, there will be diligence required on your part in procuring at least three quality recommendation letters.
3. Include the necessary information
Let the person writing the letter know the university (or universities) to which you’re applying, the type of degree or program, what your career aspirations are and, a reminder of the experiences you would like them to reflect upon.
You should also include:
- your resume
- a note about the deadline for submitting the letter
- a copy of your statement of intent or admissions essays
If you haven't drafted your statement of intent or your essays, that's OK. A quick overview in your email is enough to provide your letter writer context.
If you're considering a graduate program, it’s never too early to starting thinking about potential letter writers and contacting them to discuss the possibility.
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