Kris Gunawan & David E. Copeland
University of Nevada, Las Vegas
Applying to graduate psychology programs can be a time-consuming and stressful process. However, you can avoid unnecessary obstacles along the way by planning ahead. Beyond filling out graduate applications, preparing for the Graduate Required Exam (GRE), and working on personal statements, you should be aware that graduate programs will typically want at least three letters of recommendation. However, students often put this task aside, later realizing that they need to quickly approach willing professors for a letter before the application deadlines. The following tips will help you get the best letters of recommendation possible.
Your Recommenders Should Be Full-Time Faculty
When you apply to graduate school, the people who evaluate your application will be faculty in that program who work with graduate students. Because these professors are most likely to trust the opinion of their peers, it is important that your recommenders are also full-time faculty (hint: full-time faculty will have the title of Assistant, Associate, or Professor). However, at some large schools, many courses are taught by part-time faculty or graduate students. In these cases, you need to seek out courses or experiences (e.g., working in a research lab) where you can interact with full-time faculty so that they can get to know you. If you are in a situation where you need to choose between a full-time faculty member who does not know you well and an instructor who could write you a glowing letter, you may want to choose the latter as long as your other letters are from full-time faculty. Please note that some graduate programs may require other recommenders (besides psychology professors) who are able to assess your clinical or other professional experiences. Make sure to work with those recommenders so that they can write you a great letter.
(At Least One of) Your Recommenders Should Know You Really Well
Taking a psychology course with a professor and getting an A for that class will get you an okay letter, but graduate admissions are competitive and you need at least one strong letter from a professor who knows you really well. Anyone can earn an A in a course, but not everyone can demonstrate his or her skills outside of the classroom. The best way to get letters of recommendation is to work as a research assistant in a lab. To that end, ask your professors if they have any research assistant positions available. Most graduate programs in psychology will expect you to have some research background; this can be running experiments, analyzing data, working with other students, or even better, completing a senior/honors thesis or presenting posters at research conferences. By being involved in faculty-sponsored research, you not only build up your curriculum vitae but also ensure that your recommender will know you well. Thus, your research advisor will be able to describe your abilities more thoroughly and support you with more compelling reasons for why you would be a strong applicant. A good rule of thumb is to work in a research lab for at least a year or more.
If you are wondering whether all of your letters need to be strong, understand that one very strong letter and two supporting letters (e.g., full-time faculty from whom you took courses but with whom you did not work closely) is all that is often necessary. This is important because some students may start working in multiple research labs, trying to meet more professors to write strong letters. Unfortunately, in these circumstances, students may spread themselves too thin and end up not working closely with any particular faculty member to ensure a strong letter.
Asking Your Recommenders
One of the most challenging parts of getting letters of recommendation is to ask for them. Set a time to meet with your potential recommenders to see if they can write you a letter; asking for a letter through email may not be the best method because those messages can sometimes be overlooked. Keep in mind that not only should you ask if they would be willing to write you a letter, but also ask if they would be willing to write you a good letter. While this conversation might seem awkward at first, it is worthwhile: Communicating clearly about what recommenders can (and cannot) say helps you evaluate the strength of their letters. In some cases, recommenders might state that they do not know you well enough to write a sufficiently strong letter—it is better to learn this early than after they have sent their letters to your schools!
Provide Enough Time for Your Recommenders to Write Your Letter
When you approach potential recommenders, make sure to give them enough time to write the best letter they can. They will need time to reflect on what you have accomplished and why you are capable of succeeding in a graduate program. As such, professors often need at least one or two months of notice before the actual deadline. As the deadline approaches, make sure to remind your recommenders from time to time (e.g., two weeks from the due date) that the letters are due soon. Small reminders are sometimes good for professors because their schedules are often busy.
Organization is Important
Keep in mind that recommenders are doing you a favor by writing you a letter. Because of this, you want to make this task as easy as possible for them. To simplify things for your recommenders, make sure to organize all of the materials for each of your applications. A great way to be organized is to provide a folder of all of the necessary information that your professors need. This may include (1) a list of all of the schools and programs, (2) the deadline for each letter, (3) information about you, such as your GRE scores, personal statement, and curriculum vitae, and (4) whether each letter is to be submitted electronically or by mail. If the letter is to be submitted electronically, provide the email address for submission or let the recommender know how the program will be in contact. If the letter is to be submitted by mail, ask your recommenders whether they prefer pre-addressed stamped envelopes or pre-addressed mailing labels. By keeping everything organized in this way, you can feel confident in knowing that your professors will have their letters prepared and sent to all of your schools.
Remember to Show Your Gratitude
Students often forget that their recommenders took time out of their busy schedules to write these letters. A simple way to show your appreciation is to send them a “thank you” note or a short email message. Writing to them is more meaningful than you might think and helps maintain positive relationships with them. Remember: Even once you begin graduate school, you may still need to rely on these individuals for additional recommendations (e.g., for fellowship applications), particularly in the first year or two.
Kris Gunawan is a doctoral student in Experimental Psychology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and the 2013-2014 Past President for the APS Student Caucus.
David E. Copeland is an Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and has written and read many letters of recommendation for undergraduates who are applying to graduate school. He supervises the Reasoning and Memory Lab.
Nicholas R. Eaton and James J. Hodge served as the editors of this manuscript.