Letters of recommendation are critical. In this section, we will talk about why letters of recommendation are so important, how to select recommenders, request a recommendation, and prepare your recommenders to write the best letter possible on your behalf.
Our relationships with others help define who we are. Think about all the times a friend has put in a good word for you or when you’ve been dissuaded from working with another person because of his or her reputation. Relationships say a lot about us, from how we work with others to what kind of leader we are. Those we form relationships with often have the greatest insight into who we are, our quirks and oddities, and our ability to navigate through social and professional situations—often observing things about ourselves that we fail to see.
By examining your professional relationships with others (i.e., your recommenders) admissions officers are hoping to catch a glimpse of who you are from someone who isn’t you. A recommender provides critical insights to add to help the admissions committee understand you, for example they can say “so-and-so was the greatest Soldier I’ve ever had” which is something you couldn’t say yourself in a resume or personal essay. A great letter of recommendation has the potential to elevate your application from ‘wait-listed’ to ‘accepted’; a generic letter of recommendation can sink your chance of admittance like an iceberg to the Titanic. No pressure, right?
OK, you understand that letters of recommendation demonstrate the quality of relationships you build, and are an important piece of your application. Since your application is like a jigsaw puzzle, with every part being essential, this piece needs to fit with the rest of your application. Start by remembering the Seven P’s from earlier (Prior Proper Preparation Prevents Pitifully Poor Performance). You’ll need to plan and prepare early through three critical steps:
Selecting your recommenders
Requesting a recommendation
Preparing your recommenders to write a great supporting letter
Picking the right recommender(s) is the most critical first step, so let's take a look at what makes a good recommender, and what to avoid. Doing this right requires is a significant amount of reflection and preparation, so be sure to start early! Once you pick your recommenders you still need to give them adequate notice to write their letters in time to submit your application (shoot for two months ahead of the deadline, minimum).
When selecting recommenders, first and foremost you should pick people who know you well on a professional or academic level and can speak to who you are. The quality of your relationship is more important than the prestige or position of the recommender, because admissions officers want to learn about you from people who can describe your experiences and potential in very personal specific terms.
Who might this be for you? You want your recommenders to be your mentors and leaders, with greater weight given to those you have worked under most recently. As you narrow your list of potential recommenders, prioritize those with whom you have the strongest relationships. Your closest mentors will invest more time and energy into their recommendation letter and do so much more personally. Consider professors and military leaders who can attest to your abilities and strengths, and to what you have done in school and in service. Reserve component military members should also consider civilian employers.
Overall, as you arrive at your final list, consider your recommenders in against the following criteria:
The quality of the relationship you have with them
What they have seen you do
What they know about your and your experiences
The capacity or role they know you in
Since the goal of the application is to build a coherent picture of you with a lot of different puzzle pieces, you should also think about how the recommenders you choose complement each other and your broader application. Having multiple excellent recommendations is good; having multiple excellent recommendations that are carefully chosen provide different supporting perspectives on who you are can be very powerful. A few key questions can help frame your thinking:
What are the key themes I want to communicate about myself in my application?
Who are the best recommenders speak to each of these themes? (Most often, it makes sense for each recommender to speak in depth about only some of the themes that they have observed most closely.)
What stories or experiences have I referenced in my own application materials that they might be able to add additional detail about?
What have I not talked about in my application that I would like them to talk about?
Some reflection up front will arm you with the ability to pick the right recommenders for you and to prepare them to support your application.
Broadly speaking there are two simple categories of recommenders to avoid:
Those who cannot speak specifically and personally about you will not be able to provide the insight your application needs, and it is transparent to admissions officers whether the recommender really knows the person they are recommending. A generic recommendation letter that says a lot of nothing about you means nothing to admissions officers, regardless of who penned the letter. Avoid the pitfall of having a very senior person write your letter of recommendation (even if it's a general officer or community college president), unless they know you well.
While it is important to have recommenders who know you well, family and peers are almost never appropriate recommenders, and are also not able to speak to some of the most important aspects of your professional life authoritatively.
*In rare cases, some applications will ask for a recommendation from a peer specifically. Only choose a peer recommender in this very explicit context.
The preferred method of communication is in person. An email is appropriate too, assuming that circumstances prevent face-to-face communication. Though there are many possible approaches to the request, your conversation or email should have a few critical components:
Provide brief personal context, particularly around your goals in applying to college
Request the letter of recommendation
Explain why you are requesting a letter from this person
Provide the due date and any noteworthy requirements for the recommendation
Offer to provide additional information and context to help them write the letter
As always, be courteous throughout. A good letter represents a significant investment of time in you, and should be treated as such. It is also good form to send a thank you email after a response is given, regardless of the answer.
The email example below provides an illustrative example of how one might approach communicating the key points of a recommendation request.
Dear Professor [Name],
I hope you are doing well. I wanted to update you to let you know that I have decided to apply to [School] to pursue a Bachelor's degree in Sociology, and I was wondering whether you would be willing write me a letter of recommendation.
I enjoyed taking your Intro to Sociology class last semester, and I still fondly recall our last office hours conversation about military subcultures. The experience in your class contributed significantly to my desire to pursue a major in Sociology in college, and so I feel that your recommendation would be particularly meaningful. I would be honored to have you write a letter of recommendation in support of my application.
The letter of recommendation is due on [Date], and asks that it be submitted via an online portal that will be sent directly to your professional email.
Please let me know if you might be willing to write a recommendation letter. If so, I will send you some additional context to help you understand how I am thinking about my application as a whole and where your letter can best fit. I am also very willing to answer any questions or concerns you may have.
Thank you so much in advance for considering this. It means a lot.
After your recommenders agree to write a letter on your behalf, you will need to arm them with the right information to support you application. While you don't want to overload them, providing targeted information can make the difference between good and great recommendations, even for recommenders who know you well. The information they might need fits into four important categories:
Background on your goals and motivations
Personal information sheet
While these categories are almost always helpful, you should have a conversation with your recommenders about how much information they need to be successful (experienced recommendation writers may have slightly different needs from those who write recommendations less often).
At a minimum you should provide your recommenders:
A list of universities you are applying to
Your desired major (if you know)
Your reasons for applying to the schools you have selected
Additional detail around your top choice schools would also be helpful
Any follow-on professional goals you have
This will give your recommender a broad perspective on how you are thinking about the application process, and where you are hoping to go in future.
On a more granular level, it is helpful to provide your recommenders context about your own application. Though it can take numerous forms, you will want to:
Communicate key themes you want to highlight about yourself
Share your application essays
Share which themes you would like your recommender to write about
Provide context about your other recommenders and what themes they will touch on
You might be asking yourself, “Why do they need my essays?” The best letters are personal in nature because they can make you come to life to admissions officers. You want recommenders to speak to your character, as well as your hopes and dreams, achievements, and even how you overcame your failures. Recommenders who read your essays can integrate this in their letter, and learn more about you in the process. This will help put the ‘puzzle’ together and help you seem like an actual person, and not some faceless applicant.
Ensure that you provide all the relevant details your recommenders need to submit their application on time and in accordance with any particular requirements of the schools to which you are applying. While you should always check for the specific requirements, some critical points are:
Due date: This is particularly important, because in many cases, you will still be responsible for having a completed application by the deadline, even if you don't submit the letters yourself. As such, clearly communicating and tracking the status of your recommendation letters is very important.
Formatting: Identify and communicate any stipulations for length, specific signature, letterhead, file type, or other formatting requirements for the letter itself.
Submission guidelines: Communicate clearly who is responsible for how the letter gets submitted. Are you or is your recommender responsible for submission? Know what your school's protocol is, share this clearly with your recommenders along with the right information to enable them to do so (e.g. mailing address or information for email or online submission). Also, it may be helpful to give your recommenders your choice colleges’ contact information in case they want to clarify anything.
Your recommenders will likely not have a perfect memory, so having an information sheet to refer to will ensure you get a more thoughtful and inclusive recommendation. An information sheet lists your accomplishments relevant to the relationship you have with your recommender. An information sheet can be considered a less formal resume.
For example, an information sheet for your military-connected recommender will include various service awards and commendations you’ve received, as well as job titles and roles you’ve served in (as well as your achievements/accomplishments). An information sheet for a professor, in contrast, will (probably) not include a list of your military accomplishments. Instead, you would highlight your classroom work and interactions you’ve had with the professor outside the classroom (although the emphasis should be on you as that person’s student, not someone outside the classroom).
Tailor every information sheet in a way that is useful to the individual recommender. Military recommenders might need a reminder to “translate” military jargon into language that civilian admissions officers can understand. In particular, if a particular role or achievement or promotion is a real stand-out, you should explain why—the mere name of the role or award might not mean much to a civilian without further explanation.
A solid list of your accomplishments includes job titles and achievements, along with a description of what you did. Stating that you “Received an Army Achievement Medal (AAM) while acting as a Non-commissioned Officer-in-Charge,” is not helpful by itself. You want to describe what you were doing to receive the AAM, as well as what you learned from the experience. Add quantifiable data when possible–anything that can be broken down into numbers. As a supply sergeant, you might state that you were in charge of maintaining and issuing over $5 million dollars worth of equipment. As an infantry squad leader, you would state that you were responsible for the welfare and training of ten or so soldiers. Be as descriptive as possible.
Organize your information sheet for coherence. You want to make your recommenders’ jobs as easy as possible, so pages of unstructured bullet points are a no-go. Opt instead for dividing your information sheet into sections and subsections. Quote evaluations, positive counseling statements and award citations. Keep in mind that if you ask people that know you very well to write a letter of recommendation, this will save a lot of steps in terms of putting together an information sheet. Below is a short example of an information sheet.
Thanks again for writing my letter of recommendation! I want to provide some additional context for you to draw on as needed as you write my letter of recommendation. Below are a list of my roles and accomplishments from my time under your command. I hope you find the information helpful as you craft the letter of recommendation.
Thank you again!
SECTION 1: Job Titles and Roles
August 2010 – November 2010: Acting NCOIC of our Unit Chaplain Ministry Team. I was in charge of organizing the 40 weekly religious services in Kandahar Airfield (KAF), Afghanistan, in support of 30,000 service members and DoD employees on base. This included keeping track of all incoming and outgoing chaplains, structuring a method for scheduling special religious events on base, and requesting funding from Base Ops. At the end of this mission I was recognized by the 82nd Airborne Chaplain Ministry Team for “exceptional service under constant threat” to our religious community at KAF, and given an impact award: a Certificate of Achievement.
November 2010 – August 2011: Role III Hospital Chaplain Assistant. My job was to go around the hospital and check up on patients, as well as medical providers. During any given week I would talk to 200 – 300 service members. I co-facilitated 27 group therapy sessions with either my chaplain or a psychological provider. I enjoyed the work so much I would stay extra hours to support the night-shift.
SECTION 2: Awards and Commendations
May 2009 - Honor Graduate in Basic Training. Honor Graduate is bestowed upon the top 10% of the graduating class.
SECTION 3: Other Relevant Information
I’ve worked under your command since February of 2010.
[You might consider in this section including community service, volunteer and civic activies, and hobbies. Generally, use this section to provide additional detail about who you are that is relevant to this person's recommendation.]