Recommendation letters are votes of confidence from members of academia that you have the requisite qualities to attend graduate school. The thought process is that professors can best judge your academic potential, having taught you in their classes. People tend to trust people who are like themselves and the admissions committee is made up of, well, professors.
Graduate schools usually require you to submit two to four letters of recommendation, depending on the school. With any luck, you'll be able to round up a few professors who appreciate your character and intellectual quality. The strongest letters possess several characteristics. First, they paint a picture of your qualities: intelligence, dedication, maturity, curiosity, etc. Second, they provide detailed examples of your work, giving the admissions committee something concrete to be impressed about. And, third, they are on the longer side.
Now that you have an idea of what a great letter looks like, it's time to go off and get some. Below is a list of things you can do to bolster your chances of success.
Pick the Right Recommenders
To set yourself up for success, identify the best possible recommenders. Really think about who these individuals might be. Generally speaking, pick professors who you've impressed and who are in the same field (or related fields) as your graduate program. Don't feel like you need to go for the big names, but, rather, pick professors who know you well and can speak to your strengths. If you've been out of school for some time, contact your former professors, or consider taking a course as a non-degree seeking student at a local university to get a recommendation letter.
Give Your Recommenders The Necessary Context
Next, meet with your recommenders or, failing that, communicate with them by telephone or email. It's human nature for people to help you more after a face to face meeting, so that's generally the best way to go. In your conversation, discuss your motivations for attending graduate school, the programs that you're applying to, why you chose them, and remind the professor of the work you did in his class. Sometimes, your professor may ask for some bullet points to help him expedite the writing process. A sensible way to handle this is to prepare a list of points that describe the accomplishments and specific examples (especially of research projects) that you'd like him to highlight in the letter of recommendation.
Ask For Letters Well in Advance
If absolutely need something done, leave plenty of time. Recommendation letters for grad school are no exception, particularly since it's dependant on someone else's time. * * * Your recommenders are likely to be busy, so it's best to recruit their help at least one month before the deadline, if not more in advance. * * *
Check Up On Your Recommenders
Once your recommenders are on board, you may have to check on them once or twice to confirm that they've submitted your letters (sometimes, schools let you monitor the status of your submissions online). It's also a good idea to ask them to submit your letters one week before the deadline, in case they get tied up or need to travel at the last moment without having had a chance to write your letter.
Protect Yourself: Ask For An Extra Letter
If you're unusually worried that one of your recommenders might fail to produce the goods, asking for an extra letter from an additional professor can save the day. You wouldn't be the first person to whom this has happened. Some schools don't mind receiving an extra letter of recommendation, while others will simply discard it. If you need to take this approach, it may be helpful to check with the schools first.