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Reference Letters and Why You Need Them
When you apply to any graduate program in any field of study, a recommendation letter or reference is often part of the application requirements. Given that it is impossible for graduate school admission committees to have conversations with every applicant to see just how great they are, they rely on reference letters for this information. Reference letters also give admission committees some insight as to how you are perceived by other people, be they former colleagues and or bosses (in the case of professional references), or former or current professors (in the case of academic references). Reference letters also help admission committees determine what you might be like as a graduate student and colleague and how you will handle your studies and duties.
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Who Should Write Them
The first rule to obey when choosing your referees is you need to choose those who know you well and can write an honest, well articulated and favorable recommendation. Let's face it, if the recommendation is not strong and no good, you can kiss getting into graduate school goodbye. If you have work experience, think of that boss with whom you had a really good working relationship and who encouraged you and helped you thrive. Chances are this person would be willing to write you a professional reference letter for graduate school and would in his letter testify to your professionalism and drive. If you do not have substantial professional experience, you probably worked while in college, participated in an internship program, or served as a research or teaching assistant for a professor. The point here is, these people were at some point your supervisors in a work environment and can comment on your work ethic.
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Effective Professional Reference Letters
In addition to the points mentioned above, a professional reference letter for a graduate school applicant is most effective when it contains the following elements: is written well ahead of time and therefore not rushed; is detailed and therefore not only tells but shows the admissions committee how well the referee knows you; comments on your strengths. The key to getting this kind of reference letter is informing your referees well in advance of the deadline so they have enough time to write the best references possible. Also when you send that initial email requesting a recommendation, ask what they need from you to help them write the best recommendation letter on your behalf. Some people will need to be reminded of some of the highlights of the time you spent with them in a professional setting and some of your accomplishments. Others will need an updated resume especially if it has been long since you worked with them. With proper preparation, you will be able to give them well ahead of time what they need to be able to help you. Most importantly, send your referees kindly reminders until your references are mailed so you never miss a deadline.