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Preparing for and Choosing Someone to Write Your Letter of Recommendation

March 21, 2020

When it comes to applying to graduate school, one of the toughest parts is figuring out where and who to get your letters of recommendation from. These aren’t avoidable either. Most graduate schools and programs will require at least two or three. In fact, most of the graduate programs at Idaho State University require two to three letters of recommendation. So who should you talk to, to get them? Well, there are several places to look and few steps you can start taking now.

Firstly, you need to make sure you are recommendable. One of the ways you can do this is by building a relationship with any teachers and mentors you have early on. Asking them for help during their office hours, demonstrating your hard work and other things can help build your reputation and relationship with these people, therefore making you a more ideal student that can separate you from the crowd. Dr. Sandra Speck, a professor of marketing at the College of Business, says that “One of the questions that those seeking recommendations always ask is how long and in what capacity I have known the student. I write my strongest letters for students who have made an effort to interact with me and who have taken advantage of office hours and my offers to talk with students.” By building a relationship with faculty, supervisors, and others, they are also more likely to and can write a better letter of recommendation because they have a better idea of your abilities and the like.

Secondly, make sure you ask people who are reliable, have a good understanding of your skills, and who will/can write a positive letter about you. The people you would typically ask are the faculty from your undergrad program. Because they have been your professors, they have a better understanding of your academic abilities and can give insight into whether or not graduate school would be suitable for you. Dr. Robert Tokle, an economics professor at Idaho State, says “Ask the instructor what kind of letter (strong, weak, etc.)  they feel they can write.” If you ask a professor who can’t write a strong letter, it can really affect whether or not the graduate school will consider you.  Speck adds “Students [should] approach faculty [or others] with whom they’ve developed a relationship over time to write reference letters. These are the sources of the strongest letters. Students should start early in their college experience thinking ahead to those letters of recommendations which will be needed not only for future jobs, but also even more immediately for scholarship applications, internships, etc.” Universities use these letters (along with your other materials like grade point average (GPA), test scores, and statements of purpose) to determine if their graduate program will be a good fit for you. Letters like these give a better picture of what you’re really like. Test scores are quantifiable but can only tell the graduate school so much, so they use those letters to get a better picture of what you yourself are like. Should you ask just anyone though? Couldn’t you ask a family member if you don’t know any faculty very well? Kristine McCarty, the advisor for graduate studies, says “You shouldn’t ask someone just because of name recognition or title/position. Those individuals are likely to be asked to write a lot of letters, many of which will sound pretty generic. Make sure whoever you ask knows you well. Don’t ask family members either. Those individuals, though they could certainly speak to your strengths, are biased and their letters are usually not taken seriously.”

Thirdly, make sure you have a stellar portfolio. What I mean by that, is just getting yourself involved in activities and organizations in your community and keeping it as a mental list of things and experiences you’ve done. Doing this not only gives you some good things you can add to your resume, but also gives you more people to choose from when getting your letters of recommendation. A portfolio goes hand-in-hand with being recommendable because while your professors can give a more accurate academic view, volunteer and service opportunities can give a better view into your character. Portfolio building is something you want to start early because having a long history, particularly in service and leadership positions, can not only build up your reputation but your own personal skills. Volunteer and internship opportunities give you the chance to hone and build on skills that are desirable in school and the workplace, such as leadership, technological, and other skills. Speck gives some additional advice stating that students should “...plan from early on to build a portfolio including a strong academic record, active engagement with student organizations, and professional development activities such as internships to provide lots of fodder for anyone crafting a letter of recommendation for you down the road.” Things like volunteer and civic work can really round out not only your personal portfolio but can demonstrate other desirable traits like a willingness to help others and selflessness. Doing these activities also shows that you are willing to work on yourself and to improve in areas where you might be weak. In fact, if you are looking for events to improve your professional development skills, the College of Business hosts a Professional Development Month every year in the month of September. It includes events such as a resume help event, an etiquette dinner, a mock interview event and more!

Letters of recommendation can be one of the most important parts of your graduate school application so it’s important to make sure that they are done well. If you have more questions about your graduate school application or what’s required for your program at Idaho State University, visit the graduate school’s page.