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Graduate Admissions: Choosing a Recommender

By Ryan Hickey updated on Thursday, October 17, 2013

For your graduate school application package, the program will typically ask for one or more recommendations. The program may simply ask for a traditional letter of recommendation or provide specific prompts for the recommender. Either way, the recommendation needs to help the admissions officers get to know you better as a person and your ability to perform well in graduate school. It can be difficult to decide whom to ask, so here are some tips for choosing a recommender:

1. Pick someone who knows you well.

Avoid the mistake of just going for professors whose class you earned an ‘A’ in but you never spoke with or someone so high up in your organization you’ve only met them casually. Struggling in a class might have prompted you to seek the professor during office hours, which began a relationship. Although you might have made better grades in other classes, a professor who witnessed you overcome obstacles can generally write a more persuasive letter of recommendation than one who only knows you from your grades.

A recommendation from someone in a top position within your work or volunteer organization but who only knows you from occasional group meetings probably isn’t your best bet. Remember, the recommender is trying to help make a good impression of you and your potential to the admissions officers. You aren’t trying to make the admissions officers impressed with the accomplishments of your recommender.

2. When choosing among professors, pick a recommender who either teaches in the field or in a field related to your graduate school program.

This can be especially difficult for individuals who are applying to graduate school programs that are very different than their undergraduate major. If your bachelor’s degree is in International Studies but you are applying to a graduate program in Nursing, a recommendation from your Biology professor can be much more significant than one from your Global Politics professor – even if you made a lower grade in Biology than Global Politics.

3. For recommenders outside of school, choose one who supervised your work or volunteer services.

When working together on a project, we get to know our teammates very well. Therefore, they can seem like ideal recommenders. They understand our work habits, our problem solving skills, and our goals. However, except in rare circumstances where the program specifically asks for a recommender who wasn’t a supervisor, the admissions officers are expecting a letter of recommendation from someone who was responsible for overseeing your work. A supervisor can attest to your ability to meet deadlines, accept feedback, and how well you build relationships with both your peers and authority figures.
About the Author

Ryan Hickey is the Managing Editor of Peterson's and an expert in college, graduate, and professional admissions. A graduate of Yale University, Ryan has worked in admissions for nearly a decade writing test-prep material for the SAT, AP exams, and TOEFL, editing essays and personal statements, and consulting directly with applicants. He enjoys sharing his knowledge to aid others in achieving their educational goals and, when he gets a break, loves hiking and fly fishing with his wife and two border-collie mixes.

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