Letters of Recommendation

Dear Anthropology Majors,

As you know, letters of recommendation are an essential component of most job and virtually all graduate school applications. Such letters provide information not easily gleaned from resumes or official transcripts. Potential employers would like to know, for example, if you have a strong worth ethic. Do you work well independently as well as on a team? How do you deal with adversity or challenges you encounter in your work? Do you give up easily or do you tend to persevere? Are you goal oriented and creative? Do you take initiative and responsibility? Are you cordial, respectful, and kind? Or, do you tend to blame others and drive people crazy with constant complaints?

Graduate programs want to know what kind of student you are or have been: did you require a lot of supervision and extra attention? Or, were you serious, disciplined, focused, consistent, and hungry to learn? They want to know if you are simply trying to avoid the “real world” for a few more years, or if your desire to attend graduate school is well considered and based upon an authentic and passionate desire to pursue studies in the given field?

Letters of recommendation can say all of these things and much more. This is why potential employers and graduate admissions committees take them seriously. As your faculty, we too take these letters very seriously and we are usually more than delighted to write them for you. We want to see you succeed, at Willamette and in life! With all of this in mind, please read through this article/list and follow the author’s suggestions as best you can. In so doing you will help us and yourself.

Thank you.

Professors Moro, Dobkins, Wogan and Millen

Don'ts for Getting Letters of Recommendation

By Tara Kuther, Ph.D., from About.com Guide


A letter of recommendation is part of a faculty member's job, right? Yes, but… students have a great deal of influence over the letters faculty write. While professors rely on a student's academic history in writing letters of recommendation, the past isn't all that matters. Professors' impressions of you matter -- and impressions constantly change based on your behavior. So what can you do to ensure that professors you approach for letters see you in a positive light? First, don't do any of these:

1. Don't fail to read a faculty member's response to your request.

You've asked a faculty member to write you a letter of recommendation. Carefully interpret
his or her response. Often faculty provide subtle cues that indicate how supportive a letter they will write. Not all letters of recommendation are helpful. In fact, a lukewarm letter or somewhat neutral letter will do more harm than good. Virtually all letters that a graduate admissions committee read are very positive, usually providing glowing praise for the applicant. A letter that is simply good, when compared with extraordinarily positive letters, is actually harmful to your application. Ask faculty if they can provide you with a "helpful letter of recommendation" rather than simply a letter.

2. Don't push for a positive response.

Sometimes a faculty member will decline your request for a letter of recommendation outright. Accept that. He or she is doing you a favor because the resulting letter would not help your application and instead would hurt.

3. Don't wait until the last minute to ask for a letter.

Faculty are busy with teaching, service work, and research. They advise multiple students and likely are writing many letters for other students. Give them enough notice so that they can take the time required to write a letter that will get you accepted into graduate school.

4. Don't have bad timing.

Approach a faculty member when she or he has the time to discuss it with you and consider it without time pressure. Don't ask immediately before or after class. Don't ask in a hallway. Instead, visit the professor's office hours, the times intended for interaction with students. It often is helpful to send an email requesting an appointment and explaining the purpose of the meeting.

5. Don't wait to provide supporting documentation.

Have your application materials with you when you request your letter. Or follow up within a couple of days.

6. Don't provide your documentation piecemeal.

Provide your documentation all at once. Don't offer a curriculum vitae one day, a transcript another, and so on.

7. Don't rush the professor.

A friendly reminder sent a week or two before the deadline is helpful; however, don't rush the professor. Or offer multiple reminders.

8. Don't provide messy, unorganized documents.

Anything you provide the professor must be free of errors and must be neat. These documents represent you and are an indicator of the seriousness with which you view this process as well as the quality of work you will do in grad school.

9. Don't forget submission materials.

Don't fail to include program-specific application sheets and documents, including websites to which faculty submit letters. Don't forget to include login information. Don't make faculty ask for this material. Don't let faculty sit down to write your letter and find that they don't have all of the information. Alternatively, don't let a professor try to submit your letter online and find the he or she doesn't have the login info.

10. Don't provide incomplete supporting documentation.

Don't make a professor have to ask you for basic documentation.

11. Don't forget to write a thank you note or card afterward.

Your professor took the time to write for you—most often devoting a few hours of his or her life—the least you can do is thank him or her.

12. Don't forget to tell faculty about the status of your application.

We want to know, really.

Finally, remember that the general rule is that you want your letter writers to be in a good mood when they write your recommendation letter and to feel good about you and their decision to support your application to graduate school. Keep that in mind and act accordingly and you'll increase the odds of receiving an excellent letter.