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Letters of Recommendation

Dr. Tonyan's Thoughts (and Requests) About Letters of Recommendation - particularly for graduate school


Who Should you Ask?

Letters of recommendation are an important part of any graduate school application. If you are applying to a graduate program to prepare you for practice (e.g., MFT, MSW), you will still want at least one (preferably two) strong letters that can attest to your ability to do well in graduate-level courses (based on performance in an upper-division or hard course, preferably). If you are applying to a doctoral program (PhD which is primarily preparing you for a career in research), you’ll want three letters that speak directly to your ability to conduct research (preferably in the specific area you are applying to work it) and your ability to complete rigorous coursework.

Planning Ahead

It’s important to plan ahead for letters of recommendation. If you finish a course with me and you did well, ask me as soon as the course is over to write a letter that I could keep on file. Bring me copies of your work AND the comments I wrote on your work. It’s often helpful for me to put a quotation from something I wrote on your paper or assignment into my letter. Visit me during my office hours (or by appointment) so that I can get to know more about you. Most schools want information about whether you will be a nice person to be around in addition to knowing that you will do well in the tasks they set before you. Ideally, you would take another class from me or volunteer in my lab or do something so that I know more about you than just what I learn in a class (particularly if your class was large). MAKE SURE YOU DID WELL IN MY COURSE or if you didn’t do particularly well, make sure you’ve talked with me about what else was going on and I have seen your capacity to do well.

I won’t write letters about things that I have not directly experienced with you (e.g., not about your resume or other courses you took), but I can sometimes comment about the rigor of your courses taken (e.g., if you’ve taken a lot of hard classes or classes that are designed to prepare students for graduate study, I can comment on the curriculum of the department).

Approaching Me

If you decide you’d like me to write a letter about you, it's best if we can actually meet and talk. Once we've done that, I prefer that you email me and attach a Microsoft word (.doc) or rich text format (.rtf) document that includes the following information a table in text that has little or no formatting: due date, institution & department with full mailing address, degree program, format (online or paper), and notes about why you will be a good fit with this program specific aspects of the program I may be able to speak to (like working with children). This allows me to easily scan and see when I need to have your letters done, it allows me to copy and paste information into the letters I write, and it allows me, in sum, to write a stronger letter in less time. That’s good for you and me. I’ve created a template that you can use to fill in your information. Please download it from here.

Time Frame

Usually, I need at least two weeks to write a letter, but sometimes I can work on shorter notice and sometimes I need more time. Please talk to me as soon as you’re thinking about asking me so that we can talk about when your earliest deadline is and how much time I’ll need. I try to get all your letters done at once, but there is a fair bit of time involve in preparing each one (printing on letterhead, printing letters, filling out forms that you require, etc) even for online applications!

Waivers and Confidentiality

Graduate programs take the waiver very seriously. You are best served by signing the waiver indicating that you waive your right to see information. Otherwise, grad programs may worry that your letter is not honest. My own policy (which I’m happy to talk with you about) is that I won’t write a letter for you if I wouldn’t tell you the same information. I will tell you if I don’t think I can write a strong letter for you and then you will have to make a decision about what you will send along with your application. As a result, I will give you a copy of the letter I write that is not on letterhead and that is not signed (so you are not sending it anyplace that I don't know about). My position is somewhat unique to me and most professors will not do this. Note that it’s unethical for you to ask for a letter that you don’t need in order to be able to see what a professor wrote. If you sign a waiver, you should not look at a letter unless that professor has explicitly said you can look at that letter. However, you can have a frank discussion with a professor about what he/she would write. Be sure to pay attention to subtle cues and specifically ask whether the professor feels that she/he would be able to write a strong letter – some people may feel awkward telling you that they would not be able to write a strong letter. However, you should know that many of us are asked to write a number of letters for different students for the same program (particularly for CSUN programs), so your letter may be compared (whether consciously or unconsciously) with other letters that a professor has written for other students to that same program.

A Checklist of Things You Can Do To Help Me Help You (h5)
  1. Email me to set up a time and meet with me
  2. Download and complete the table (above) and email it to me.
  3. Forms: Most forms and most schools have some place where you indicate to me whether you’ve signed a waiver. Be sure I have all of them, that they are signed, and that I can then include them in the envelope I’ll seal your letter in.
  4. My contact information: Fill out any place on the form that asks for my contact information (even if it is in the section that says to be completed by faculty member – look near where they ask me to sign). You may have a lot of forms, but then multiply that by the number of students who ask me for letters… I have a lot, too, and you can easily find my contact information on my web site or the “signature” of my email.
  5. Course work you completed for me with feedback on it: Provide me with a packet of course work you completed in a class with me or examples of work you did in lab. Give me as much to help me remember specific details about your academic work, what I directly experienced of your interpersonal skills, your work ethic, your creativity and ability to problem-solve, etc. In particular, look at the form (if any) that a program asks me to fill out. Do you remember things you did that you think show the characteristics they are looking for? If so, write that out for me and put the words they are looking for in bold. Help me help you by being as specific and concrete as possible. **Feedback I’ve given you that praises specific things you did is particularly helpful. So assignments that have my feedback on them are especially appreciated. (You can often print this out of turnitin.com, but it takes a bit of finding to figure out how – don’t just use a keyboard shortcut).**
  6. Personal Statement: Provide me with a draft or final version of your personal statement. If you’d like feedback on it from me, then make an appointment with me to go over it with you after you’ve worked on it a while, but with a bit of time before it is due. I’ve heard that I can really help people with these and I love to do so when I have time.
  7. Sense of your Whole Application: Any other information that helps me see how my letter fits into your whole application packet: names of other recommenders (particularly if you’re applying for a very competitive program like a scholarship or PhD program); any grades you got or improvements you made; any particularly tough teachers you’ve had (sometimes I can comment that even though your GPA is not a 4.0 you took harder courses) or the fact that you’ve taken a lot of upper-division, harder courses that they might not know about (e.g., Psy485GT/S is a HARD class designed to prepare people for grad-level studies, but someone wouldn’t know that from a transcript), or if you’re in a program like RIMI or MARC.
  8. Give me a complete, organized packet. Help me keep all your information in one place, like a manilla or pocket folder or a large envelope.

What You Can Expect from Me

In most cases, what I’ll provide for you is a packet with a sample letter (see above under waivers), envelopes that are signed and sealed for you to include with your packet.

Other notes

Please let me know how your applications go. I keep a database of letters written and the outcome. I like to know if my letter helped you advance on your professional pathway.

My overall advice is that you think about your application materials as a whole. What does the sum of all the parts communicate? If your transcripts show a high GPA and hard courses (indicated by higher course numbers, for example), then don’t spend many of the words in your personal statement talking about that. Mention it, but keep that brief. Instead show how you can follow an independent project through from beginning to end or show your critical thinking skills or show your team work. If one letter of recommendation is from someone who has worked closely with you (I hope you have at least one of these!), then your other letter could be from someone who doesn’t know you as well. If one letter is from a clinical or applied setting, but is someone who doesn’t know your academic work, think about asking that person to be an extra letter (but be sure to ask the grad program staff if they’ll read any additional materials) and still try to get three strong academic references. If you have a couple of low grades, ask a letter writer to look into it and talk with you about it so that she/he could address those low grades specifically by talking about work they knew well in more detail that could counter-balance low grades in a course. It’s often more powerful for someone else to praise you than for you to talk yourself up. Similarly, it’s usually more powerful to show than to say. If you give a powerful example, or if I can describe a powerful example in my letter (perhaps you want to remind me of something you did in class that I really praised), that is better than me just saying you were great. You have so few words that they will use to evaluate you and your whole life and being, that you want every word to count and say a lot.

Lastly, I do actually appreciate a thank you note or a small token of your appreciation (I like sweets), but nothing big and not until after I’ve completed all of my responsibilities in grading your work. I don’t want to be unduly influenced when I have to evaluate your work for a course and I don’t want to cause you any financial hardship. However, some thanks for taking extra time or working under a tight deadline is nice. One of the reasons I like my job and like being at CSUN is because I like to have students come back and tell me that I made a difference in their lives (assuming that I actually did – that is particularly meaningful after grades are done and letters of recommendation have been completed). =)

In fact, take a look at Scott Plunkett’s web page (http://www.csun.edu/plunk). He’s got additional information about letters of recommendation and he also has a nice statement about nominating faculty for awards. Nominating faculty helps us remember that students do recognize our hard work even if we don’t get the award.