How to Get a Great Recommendation Letter

Most graduate schools want you to have at least two letters of recommendation.

The typical strategy is to submit a recommendation from a boss (who can discuss your leadership qualities and character), and a professor (who can discuss your intellectual abilities).

Here are some tips to help you narrow down your choices:

1. Choose someone who knows you very well.
Whoever you decide to ask, make sure you know them well. And don’t choose someone simply because they have a fancy title. You want a letter from someone who can easily write about your strengths and could share stories that clearly show you at your best. They should be able to discuss your:

  • Social skills
  • Motivations
  • Personal relationships
  • Civic responsibility
  • Dependability
  • Morality
  • Sense of humor

2. Choose a person who can talk about your leadership skills.
You want someone – like a boss or business colleague – to write about your leadership qualities. This person should discuss your growth and potential, and provide examples of your work ethic, motivation, and ability to lead a team. They should also be able to discuss your:

  • Work habits under stress
  • Self-confidence
  • Ability to listen and work with others
  • Motivation skills
  • Planning ability
  • Analyze and find solutions
  • Thoughtfulness
  • Well-liked
  • How you overcome difficult situations

3. Choose a person who can discuss your intellectual ability.
You should try and find a former professor to write about your intellectual side. This person should provide some insight into your analytical side, along with how you contribute to a classroom discussion. Here are some other areas they might want to mention about you:

  • Imagination and creativity
  • Communication skills
  • Research methodology
  • Qualitative and quantitative research skills
  • Healthy skepticism

4. Choose someone experienced in the field you’re interested in.
It’s important to choose someone who has a lot of experience and credibility in the educational field you are pursuing. This could be a former boss, senior business colleague, or professor. This can add a lot of weight to your graduate application. They could write about your:

  • Motivation for the field
  • Examples of work you’ve done in the field
  • Mention any awards or accomplishments

5. Choose a person who attended the school you want to attend.
It isn’t always possible to find someone who meets the requirements above – and also attended the grad school you are applying for. However, if you do know someone that meets all these requirements, he or she is an obvious choice for you. Just make sure they know you well, and can write stories about your leadership and/or intellectual qualities.

So if you are planning on attending grad school, start developing and nurturing relationships with people who fit the above qualifications. The better they know you, the more you’ll benefit from their recommendation letter.

And here’s one more tip . . .

Outline a potential letter for him or her.

Sometimes the people you want to recommend you might not know exactly what to write about, so it’s a good idea to provide them with a potential outline if they request one. This outline should include your strengths – and personal stories of your leadership and/or intellectual abilities. Here are areas to include in your outline:

  • A list of your past accomplishments
  • Personal stories that highlight your strengths
  • Your resume

And – as always – provide your recommender with a deadline date, a stamped and addressed envelope, and copies of any forms that need to be submitted with it.