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How to Get the Best Letters of Recommendation for Your Graduate School Application

written by: John Garger•edited by: Elizabeth Stannard Gromisch•updated: 6/27/2010

If you are thinking about applying to graduate school, you need to give serious consideration to who will write your graduate school recommendation letters. Learn about the best recommendation letter writers and how to avoid two common mistakes when it comes to selecting writers of your letter.

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    Letters of recommendation carry a lot of weight when admissions committees look at your application to graduate school. Getting the right graduate school recommendation letters takes two things: 1) Finding someone who knows you well enough to comment on your future abilities in a graduate program, and 2) finding someone who will impress the admissions committee.

    There are also several things you should avoid when selecting people to write your letters of recommendation. The tips included in this article will help you get a better handle on who should be writing your recommendation letters and how to choose the right people.

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    Graduate School Recommendation Letters

    Like letters of introduction a few centuries ago, the recommendation letter for grad school is a personal endorsement from someone who matters on your prospects of excelling in and finishing a graduate program. When selecting people to write you recommendation letters, you should keep these two things in mind.

    First, you need to select someone who knows you well enough to write the letter. If you choose someone who doesn’t know you well, the letter will come off as a form letter praising generic skills and abilities. Letters of recommendation are personal endorsements; make sure you keep it personal by selecting someone who can cite specific examples of your past abilities to hint at your future ability to succeed in a Master’s degree program.

    Second, you need to select someone who matters to the admissions committee. You mom knows you well enough to write you a graduate school recommendation letter but that won’t impress committee members. If you are applying to an MBA program, for example, try to get letters of recommendation from professors in management, economics, or a related field. These individuals should know you and the field well enough to comment on your ability to finish a management program. Such as combination is a powerful case for why you should be admitted to a graduate program.

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    Recommendation Letters to Avoid

    One practice among people who write recommendation letters is to have the candidate write his/her own letter. Then, the “writer” of the letter simply signs it. The most common excuse given for this practice is, “you know better what you want the letter to say so you should write it.” If this happens to you, you are better off finding a new person to write your letter. You want a recommendation letter for grad school to be genuine and personal, just not so personal that end up having to write it yourself.

    Another pitfall to avoid is choosing someone who does not want to write the letter. Some people feel obligated to write a letter but don’t put enough effort into it to impress an admissions committee. Since the process usually involves you never seeing the letter, you’ll never know what it said and whether the letter had a good impact. Stick with people you know, trust, and are certain will put the necessary effort into the recommendation letter to give you the best chance possible of getting into a Master’s program.