Congratulations on taking the next great step in your life by pursuing a graduate degree to continue the cultivation of your mind. Traditionally, fall season is when thousands of students in your state and across the United States apply for a graduate program to begin in the following year. You are now part of an exciting cohort of people hoping to be better thinkers and critical actors of our society. Detailed in the following paragraphs are important points to consider and recommended actions to undertake.
Selecting Professors to Write Letters of Recommendation
Ideally, the professor/s you select (sometimes two, usually three, but maybe four) should be someone who is familiar with you because of the course/s you have taken with the individual. Set up an appointment to meet with your professor. When you ask a professor for a letter, the professor might take the opportunity to informally talk to you about your goals, future plans, and reasons for going to graduate school. This is an important time to express to them why you are planning to apply. Reflect on the content of your goals and feel free to share them. Although the application process is indeed filled with procedural details that you will need to attend to with your letter writer, keep in mind that professors would not mind hearing how you're existentializing as well since they had to go through what you intend to go through. Professors will often use this opportunity to ascertain your enthusiasm and realism since professors are usually very happy to see students pursuing graduate degrees. Thus, your conversation will allow them to know what to say about you and your "essence" in the letter. Enjoy this opportunity to get to know each other. However, please do not assume that any professor will write you a letter based purely on your GPA. Additionally, as communicated by a colleague: "A professor is not obligated to write a letter of recommendation; it is only a professional courtesy on their part."
As such, be prepared to be rejected as some professors may not be able to write a letter for you due to reasons that you should not personalize. Some professors have quite strict personal standards they use to consider the student candidate while others are more flexible with their standards. Additionally, remember that you are most likely asking for recommendations in Fall, the first quarter of the academic year for professors. This means that there will be much activity in their professional lives. Professors might not have the time to attend to every students' requests. Always find a professor/letter writer that allows you the fullest ability to express yourself. Find one that communicates well with you.
To Waive or Not to Waive?
Almost always when filling out a graduate degree application, there is a box with juxtaposing text that asks whether you will waive your right to view a letter of recommendation, followed by a space asking for your signature. Note that the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) of 1974 is a law that allows parents and students certain rights of access to their educational records (Please visit: http://www.ed.gov/policy/gen/guid/fpco/ferpa/index.html). The law “applies to all schools that receive funds under an applicable program of the U.S. Department of Education.” The waiving of a right to view a letter of recommendation thus entails a student giving up that right. But why would there even be a query to ask a graduate applicant to give up this right? There are two main reasons for this: 1) Waiving a right to view your letter allows your professor to write a more honest and forthright assessment of your candidacy, work ethic, and overall propensity to succeed in the graduate program. Indeed, some professors will not write a letter for a student unless a student waives the right to view the letter. 2) Waiving a right to view your letter shows that you are confident enough about who you are to let professors voice their views about you. Please do some online searches about this important decision you will make when applying to graduate programs. The conventional practice is that students do waive their right to view the letters of recommendations written for them.
Please consider professors’ time availability. It's not a good idea to ask for letters of recommendation when the deadline for the program is, say, less than a week away. A very good rule of thumb is to give professors one month before the deadline to prepare (although some may want 2 months, so check with them). But there is a benefit to the student if they give their professors time: a good letter of recommendation will be written. Remember that graduate programs read dozens of letters every year, so a good letter that stands out from the rest is exponentially important. You should also consider that given the difficult economic times in this present period of our history, more students are applying to graduate school, meaning more letters are being written, further underscoring the need for you to have letters that stand out, or at the very least, do not read like a generic letter.
Important: One very thoughtful procedure that will allow you and your professor to save time is to fill out all of what I call "letter writer matter" for the professor. These are questions that ask about the letter writer: his/her position and/or title, the department they belong to, the address of the department and university. Often these are questions that "orbit" the waiver question. Some departments ask much information about the letter writer while others ask simply for the title. These questions are also sometimes located at the end of the forms. Please make certain that these are filled out. To facilitate matters, here is my professional information:
Dr. Jack Fong
Associate Professor of Sociology
Department of Psychology and Sociology
California State Polytechnic University, Pomona
3801 W. Temple Avenue
Pomona CA 91768
When you ask your professors for letters, it is best that you present to them as soon as it is possible three important items (preferably in a folder) so that you can make life less complicated for them and yourself, which in turn will yield a good letter that is delivered to your program in due time--a win-win situation for all parties involved: 1) your resume and/or academic details about university accomplishments and 2) your rudimentary statement of purpose that will likely be the one you send to the graduate program. In my case, I will not know how to effectively present an assessment of you that matches your hopes and goals without this document. Additionally, 3) a sheet of paper that has a three column table is also needed. I need this table to be able to organize the letters and sequence the deadlines in chronological order.
As can be seen in the first table illustration, the three column table should have in the first column the program name and department address while the second column should have the application deadline. Put programs in order from the earliest deadline to the latest deadline. Finally, the third column should include either the letter "U" or "M". A "U" means that the graduate program will be contacting professors for them to upload letters of recommendations online, an increasingly common practice (U meaning "upload online"); the "M" signifies that this program will require professors to snail mail the letter in. The student must have either a "U" or "M" listed. For the programs that require letter writers to submit their letter of recommendation electronically, an email prompt will be sent out to professors to remind them. Thus, if you place a "U" designation, I will know to expect that particular program to contact me by email for me to upload your letter.
The second table illustration was provided by an MA student applying for PhD programs. The PhD applicant provided a very thorough table and included additional columns: one for scholars the student would like to work with (important when applying for a doctoral program), one for key themes I could address in the letter, one for whether the student already contacted the program, and finally, a column that indicates what email addresses different programs' online systems will be sending their notifications to me from (so that the emails do not get placed into my junk mail folder). This is an ideal table and this particular student is now a PhD student. Let me emphasize that there is no need to be this detailed, however. Simply adopt the three column table format shown in the first table below. In fact, I would rather have a three column table.
Checklist Before Providing Materials for your Professor:
1) Your resume, 2) a rudimentary statement of purpose (no need for a finalized copy), 3) a table of graduate programs you're applying to with correct addresses, deadlines, and codes referring to whether I need to upload the letters to the departments (U) or snail mail them (M), 4) finally, please have stamps for meif I have to send the letters by snail mail, and 5) any forms from each program that has the letter writer matter (my title, address, email, etc.) filled out.
After Providing Materials for your Professor:
Periodically remind professors about the deadline/s. In fact, I suggest sending them a polite reminder notifying them that the deadline for"X program is next week." The vast majority of them will appreciate this reminder. After sending out your application/s congratulate yourself and go out and enjoy life. The remaining processes by which a program selects its graduate students are no longer under your control at this point. Drop a line to your professor when you hear of any developments. We do care for you and want you to succeed. Good luck!