Wednesday, March 20, 2013

How To Get Into An Animal Behavior Graduate Program: Getting Good Recommendation Letters

It’s hard to feel strong and confident when
asking for recommendation letters leaves
you feeling like this. Photo by Jan Mehlich
at Wikimedia.
You’re applying to graduate schools and you’ve been fretting about your grades, your test scores, and your essays for months. And then you remember about the recommendation letters – How many did they want? Three?! Ugh… Why do they make people jump through these hoops, anyway?
Turns out, the recommendation letters are a critical component of the graduate school application and they can make the difference between acceptance and rejection. You don’t just want 3 rec letters - You want 3 awesome rec letters. And although it may feel like the quality of letters written by other people is out of your hands, there are several things you can do to maximize the quality of the letters people write for you.
Before you start asking people to write rec letters, it’s important to think about how these letters are used. Generally, an admissions committee will go through applications to filter out those applicants that don’t meet the minimum standards with respect to grades, test scores, and prerequisites. Those applications that make it through the first pass are then sent on to the researchers the applicants have requested to work with. If the researcher you would like to work with is looking for graduate students that year, he or she will assess your full application. The rec letters are used to get a feel for your initiative, dedication, maturity, intelligence, creativity, ability to work with others, leadership skills, and communication skills. The better a letter can highlight these attributes about you in a personalized and detailed way, the more effective the letter will be in convincing the researcher to welcome you as a new lab member.
The most important step of getting good rec letters is asking the right people. When someone writes a rec letter for you, they can only talk about what they know about you. You may have had the most incredible and respected professor in the world, but if your only interaction with her was as a student in her 200-student lecture, she’s probably not going to have much to say about you other than what your grades were in her class. Even if you got an ‘A’ in that class, she probably won’t be able to write about the personal attributes a researcher would want to know about you. You want to request rec letters from people who know and think highly of you and your abilities (which means you must have been awesome in their presence). Secondarily, you want to ask people who hold respected positions. Some examples of good people to ask are research supervisors (if they know you well enough, a professor’s letter would typically be considered more highly than a graduate student’s letter), work supervisors (the more your work related to animal behavior or biology, the better), and professors that personally interacted with you (especially if they could write about your involvement in class projects).
Once you’ve chosen the people you would like to ask, there is a lot you can do to increase the likelihood that that their letters will be great (and submitted on time). Chances are, the people you are asking for rec letters already have a lot on their plate. The easier you make it for them, the less they will forget. Prepare a packet for each person who will write a rec letter for you. This packet should include:
  • An organized list of all the schools/programs you are applying to, their deadlines, and directions for submitting letters. Include a stamped and addressed envelope for each school that wants your references to mail their letters.
  • Your current résumé. This should include your major(s) and minor(s), current GPA, a list of science courses you’ve taken, extracurricular activities, jobs, internships, volunteer positions, honors and scholarships, and research projects.
  • A list of your accomplishments with the person writing the letter. This may include what you have contributed to projects and your memories of what you gained from your experience with that person. Include details like dates and project names. This might jog the letter-writer’s memory so he or she can write a more personalized letter.
  • Any forms the schools require. Check to see if they require your signature before you include them in the packet.
  • All this should be in a folder with your name and e-mail address on it.

Now comes the slightly awkward part: actually asking for a recommendation letter. If you chose your preferred letter-writers correctly, they should know you personally and have an idea of your career interests already, which will make this process less awkward. You can ask if someone would be willing to write you a letter either in person or by e-mail, ideally at least a month before they are due. In this first broach of the topic, you want to communicate your ultimate career goals, what types of programs you are applying for, and how many programs there are. Then you ask if they are willing and able to write recommendation letters for you. Mention that you have more information on the programs and your experiences to provide them if they would like and offer to meet with them to talk more about your goals and experiences.
Sometimes, the person you ask will decline because they feel they do not know enough positive things about you to write a strong letter for you (which would indicate that you chose the wrong person to ask or you failed to be awesome in the right people's presence) or because they simply do not have enough time. Just in case, you should have a few extra potential letter-writers in mind. But in most cases, if you chose the right people, they will be happy to write the letters for you. Bring them your prepared packet and chat with them about yourself and your goals. One or two weeks before each deadline, e-mail each reviewer a reminder of the deadline (unless they told you the letters have already been submitted).
If your letter-writers know and are impressed by you and your abilities, they should have plenty of good things to write about. If you are organized, you can make sure they remember all those wonderful things about you in time to put them in your rec letter and submit them before the deadlines. The way you approach this request can make the difference between ho-hum letters and door-opening letters.
For more advice on applying to graduate programs, go here.


  1. I think this is a great post, and I'll be passing it on to my students. One thing that can't be overemphasized, though, is asking POLITELY. Too many students treat letters of recommendation as something they pay for. I have to remind my students that I'm not paid to write letters of recommendation, nor is my tenure or promotion based on how many letters I write. I do this for YOU, because I think you're a good student and I'd like you to succeed. Treat these letters as the personal favors they are and ask nicely. You'll probably also get an even better letter in the bargain!

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