Letters of recommendation are one the most important components of your doctoral program application. In fact, they can often make or break your candidature; for example, an outstanding letter of recommendation can make up for a low GRE score, while a lukewarm letter that reads as a template can raise flags despite good grades and a well-crafted statement of purpose.
Why do these letters carry so much weight?
While PhD admissions committees are interested in your research and academic achievements, they are also looking for new students who will fit in with and contribute to their department culture, be able to do the work, and secure a research job after graduation. What better proof of your worthiness than a written testimonial from professor to professor, on your ability to navigate the rigors of doctoral studies and to secure a research job after graduation?
Yet, despite their importance in the PhD admission process, applicants often treat letters of recommendation as an afterthought. This might be because they are the component of the application over which applicants have the least amount of control. Asking for letters of recommendation can seem like a gamble, and many students feel helpless asking for a letter they’ll never get a chance to read.
However, if you are considering pursuing a PhD, you have more power over the content of your letters of recommendation than you think. You can take several steps to make sure that you have the greatest chance of getting letters that go deep into your abilities.
Taking control over your PhD letters of recommendation
Here are four ways to make sure that you get the best letters of recommendations for your PhD application:
- Start early
Starting to think about your letters of recommendations a month before the application deadline won’t cut it. The process of collecting quality letters of recommendation takes time and requires a fair amount of networking. You should start as soon as you start considering graduate school.
- Select wisely
Getting the best letters of recommendations starts with identifying the recommender who is right for you. First, you should consider the rank of your potential recommender. You should seek to obtain a letter from a full or associate professor with a lot of experience in the classroom or from a renowned expert in their field, as it often carries more weight than a letter from an adjunct professor with limited research experience. You should then select the ones who teach challenging courses in your field of interest and in which you did well.
- Build rapport
Having achieved good grades in a course does not guarantee a great letter of recommendation, especially if a lot of students in the course might have gotten the same grade. What you want is the professor to know you personally. How do you achieve that? By building rapport with the professor. Take advantage of their office hours and start sharing your intention to go to graduate school. Ask them for their opinion. Your interest in pursuing a PhD can be the common ground for you to start building a relationship. It is also a great way for you to gauge the personality of the professor and their enthusiasm about your plans as well as to evaluate if you can rely on the professor for a letter. Finally, keep in touch with your professor, especially if you are months away from the application deadline. Keep them informed of your progress. This is a great way to guarantee that your professor will talk about you in more personal terms in the future.
- Make it easy
Professors manage a lot of students and have a lot of letters of recommendations to write, especially close to application deadlines for graduate schools. To make them well disposed to writing you an outstanding letter, you need to make the process as easy as possible for them. In addition to providing them with a lot of time to write a letter for you, make sure to schedule a series of gentle reminders to keep them in the loop about your progress and the deadlines. You should also make sure to provide them with all the information they need to write the best letter possible. In addition to the list of programs and schools you are applying to, you should provide them with papers you wrote for their class, transcripts, and a copy of your CV. You should also make it clear that you are available to provide any additional information that they require or to meet with them to discuss your plans. Finally, don’t forget to thank your professor for agreeing to do this for you throughout the process and also send them a thank you note once the letters have been sent!
Letters of rec: A critical element of your application
As you can see, letters of recommendations are more than a mere formality; they play a crucial role in your application to PhD programs. They not only carry great weight in your acceptance but also require strategy and time. Instead of seeing collecting letters as a chore, consider them as an opportunity to start honing the networking skills that are of the utmost importance to your success. Contrary to the popular image of the ivory tower, the world of research is not all about isolation. It is also a social game. The sooner you realize this, the greater success you will have as a professor and researcher!
You need to choose your PhD letter of recommendation writers wisely, and then you need to present them with the right materials to assist them in constructing strong letters that will represent your greatest strengths. We can help you with this, and with any other element of your PhD application. Check out our catalog of Graduate School Admissions Services and let us know how we can help you achieve PhD admissions success!Want Dr. Barr to help you get Accepted? Click here to get in touch!