Higher Education > Advanced Advice

Do Letters Matter?

Graduate admissions experts on how to acquire the most effective letters of recommendation.

By Chris Enstrom

As the number of computer science and engineering students electing to go to graduate school increases, so does the competition to get into top schools. Students applying to competitive programs need to make sure all the elements of their applications are strong, including their letters of recommendation. But persuasive letters of recommendation should be easy to acquire as long as you've excelled in college, right? All you should need to do is ask a few of your favorite professors to write some nice things about you and send them off to the graduate admissions office at the grad school of your choice.

Of course, it's never that easy. There's more to acquiring an effective letter of recommendation than just asking your beloved professor to write it. In order to get some insight into the process, GECC asked several graduate admissions officials to answer the key questions.

How Important Are Letters of Recommendation?

Letters of recommendation are only one part of the application package. Other elements include your overall GPA, GRE scores, research experience, work experience, your admissions essay, and the rigor of the undergraduate program you completed. So where do letters of recommendation stand in this list? That depends in part on the program you are applying to and the overall strength of your application.

The weight given to the letters is generally inversely proportional to the applicant's test scores and undergraduate transcript," says Dan Moore, Ph.D., director of graduate studies at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology. "The letters provide a quick confirmation that the good students should be successful in the graduate program. High-quality letters, written from a knowledgeable standpoint, are very important for those students who may have had a slow start in the undergraduate program or whose test scores and academic transcripts are not very strong."

Susan Fisher, Ph.D., the director of graduate programs in the College of Engineering at Purdue University, says that letters of recommendation typically don't carry as much weight as a student's GRE and GPA, but that they are still an important part of the application process because they provide a direct link to people who have worked closely with a student. "The letters are the one source where a professor can make a contact to ask questions about the applicant's background and abilities," she says.

MIT Graduate Administrator Peggy Carney says that letters of recommendation provide important information that can't always be garnered from a student's grades or class standing. "Letter's of recommendation reflect things that grades do not such as imagination, motivation, maturity, leadership and the ability to do independent research. They balance the application by showing another side of the student's academic preparation."

No matter what graduate schools you apply to, your letters of recommendation will be given heavy consideration. You owe it to yourself to make sure you gather the most effective letters that you can.

Who Should Write My Letters of Recommendation?

First, make sure you select people who can truly assess your skills as a student and as a researcher. "It is essential for students to select a recommendation writer carefully based on their interaction with a professor," says Fisher."Knowledge of how an applicant is successful in academics and research is the most important information in a recommendation letter."

So does this mean that all of your letters should come from professors? Not necessarily. "Although students must include letters from professors in their applications, those with some work experience may decide to include letters from employers as well," says Dr. Moore. "Letters from employers can be helpful in showing maturity, creativity, independent thinking and work practices."

If you are applying to graduate school straight out of an undergraduate program, all three of your letters can be from professors. However, if you have had significant work experience since receiving your undergraduate degree or if you have had significant co-op experience, it may be to your advantage to have one letter from an employer.

Stay away from the trap of asking a professor to write a letter of recommendation just because you received a good grade in his or her class or a supervisor to write a letter just because you know he or she will say good things about you. Graduate admission offices value letters from people who you have a long working relationship with, and people who have a good grasp of your qualities as a student and a researcher. "Letters should always be from faculty or people who know the student well and can discuss his or her potential to make a significant contribution to the field," says Ms. Carney. "We do not value character references or letters from anyone who has not worked directly with the student in some capacity."

How Can I Make Sure the Letter is Effective?

It may seem like you do not have much control over the content of your letters of recommendation. After all, you are not the one who is writing them. Once a professor or an employer has agreed to write a letter, the content is up to him, right? Well, yes and no. In order to write an effective letter of recommendation, the author of the letter will need to know something about the graduate program(s) you are applying to, as well as your short- and long-term goals.

"I think it is important for the student to provide some suggestions and guidance for the letters," says Dr. Moore.

"I usually ask students to provide me with their application essay, if they have one, and/or a short paragraph telling me what they want to accomplish, what research program they are interested in, and to which programs/schools they plan on submitting applications."

"Students should provide a copy of their resume and transcript to any one they ask to write a letter of recommendation," adds Dr. Fisher. "Also, they should have the application deadline clearly written on the information given to the professor or employer." Most letters of recommendation can be submitted online or via email, but if a letter of recommendation must be mailed, be sure to provide a stamped, self-addressed envelope to the recommender.

Dr. Moore also recommends that students contact faculty at the graduate schools that they plan on applying to. Not only will this help them gain important insight into the graduate programs, but it gives them a direct connection within the graduate school. This can be helpful when faculty members in the department are reviewing applications.

Last Words of Advice

Letters of recommendation alone won't get you into graduate school, but they may get your application a second look. While you are working on your application essay and studying for the GRE, make sure you don't neglect the letters of recommendation. Take the time to find the right people to write letters for you, and provide them with the information they need to write the most effective letters possible.

Chris Enstrom is a career counselor at the Career Resource Center of Brown County in Nashville, Ind., and a former senior editor of Graduating Engineer & Computer Careers.

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Higher Education > Advanced Advice