Graduate Study in Psychology:

Letters of Reference

  1. Develop good relationships with your professors. Try to get to know 3 or 4 on a fairly close basis. Some graduate schools want 3 letters of reference, some want 4. Graduate schools know what a generic letter sounds like, so you want your professors to know you a little bit better than "oh yeah, that kid who sat in the front row of my class who got an A-."
  2. Get the most prestigious faculty you can to write your letters. It really helps if the people on the admissions committee at the school you're applying to know one of your recommenders. If you're applying to a cognitive psych program, for example, try to get a well-known cognitive psychologist to write one of your letters. Unfortunately, academic psychologists are as swayed by hearsay and "who you know" prejudices as anyone else--if you have a good recommendation from someone who is respected, you have a huge advantage over someone with similarly good qualifications who was not recommended by a well-known psychologist.
  3. It is best to ask professors for letters in person. Try emailing them and setting up an appointment, then politely ask them for a letter at the appointment. Some professors consider it very rude to ask for a letter by email, so be careful.
  4. Remember that by asking for a letter you are asking the professor for a big favor--you should approach it as such. Writing thank you notes after the fact is a good idea.
  5. Once you're ready to apply, give your recommenders your resume and any other information you have that you think might help them write about what a great person you are and how much potential you have for grad school.
  6. While all of your letter writers don't have to be faculty, it's a really good idea to have the majority be professors--psych professors, that is. You might have, for example, an English professor do one of your letters simply because she can attest to your writing ability, but most of your recommenders should be psychologists--graduate students or college or university professors--people who know what graduate school is about and have some idea about whether you really have what it takes to be successful there.
  7. While it's not essential, try not to have all male or all female recommenders. Some people might believe that a mix of letters from both male and female recommenders indicates that you work well with both.
  8. If you're applying to some type of mental health program (e.g., clinical, counseling, social work) and you've had a job in mental health, it's a very good idea to have your job supervisor write one of the letters. I wouldn't recommend more than one letter from your employment, though: most recommenders should be college or university faculty.
  9. Give the professors writing your letters very brief and clear instructions, and make sure you provide all of the envelopes and postage they need. (It is pretty impolite to ask someone to write a letter for you and then not provide the postage.) When they're done, send them a thank you card--they've done you a big favor (well, assuming they wrote you a good letter, anyway).
  10. It is very rare that someone will write you a bad letter--many professors will simply tell you that they don't think they can write you a good letter (or more likely, don't have time, etc., etc.). If a professor hints at the fact that they don't think they have much to say about you or that they have a few concerns, they might be trying to tell you that they don't have the very best impression of you. It won't hurt to ask a professor directly, "Do you think you can write a positive letter for me?" If you're astute, you should be able to figure out whether you really want a particular person to write you a letter or not.
  11. Finally, go ahead and tell your professors that your deadlines are earlier than they really are, and then give them the letters about 6 weeks before you tell them they're due. When I applied to grad school, I told one professor that the deadline was December 1st (the actual deadline was January 15th). I gave him the letter in the middle of October. Guess when it was finally mailed? The middle of February! And from what I hear, this happens a lot more than it should.

I also highly recommend the following page that contains tips on letters of reference:

Advice on Letters of Recommendation

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