Letters of Recommendation
TIPS AND INSTRUCTIONS FOR PSYCHOLOGY MAJORS
W L PSYCHOLOGY
Begin to be now what you will be hereafter. —william james
Most psychology majors will ask professors in the Psychology Department for a letter of recommendation at some point in their college career. W&L faculty members write a lot of letters, so these pointers have been generated in order to make the process easier and more effective for everyone involved. WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW ABOUT LETTERS OF RECOMMENDATION From the point of your first interactions with professors, you are building a foundation for future letters of recommendation. You may be surprised to learn that academic performance generally is not the most important aspect of professors’ perceptions of you and their ability to write a positive letter of recommendation. Instead, these qualities are most important:
• intellectual engagement • work ethic • organizational skills • ability to be a good team player • humility • resourcefulness • responses to critical feedback • problem-solving skills
These skills characterize productive and respected citizens of every educational and professional community, and therefore they are relevant to every letter of recommendation professors are asked to write. If you have demonstrated these characteristics at W&L, we can describe your work here in terms that will be attractive to almost any program to which you are applying. - 2 -
EDUCATE YOUR LETTER WRITERS The most effective letters of recommendation demonstrate that the letter writer is familiar with the student’s goals, strengths, weaknesses and qualifications for the specific position. Students need to make it easy for professors to learn these things. Well-informed and on-time letters of recommendation are the product of a successful partnership between a student and a letter writer. Students are responsible for organizing materials that will inform the professor’s letter and communicating effectively with the professor about goals, qualifications, applications and deadlines. This process itself involves many of the important organizational and collaboration skills noted above. When a student has made the letter-writing job as easy as possible for a professor, this will come across in the letters of recommendation. LETTERS ARE CONFIDENTIAL Letters of recommendation are confidential. That is, the applicant does not see the letter at any point. In all but very rare circumstances, letters of recommendation are submitted directly by the letter writer to the institution. In some cases, applicants are asked to formally waive their right to see the letter of recommendation. Confidentiality helps to ensure that letter writers are honest and unbiased in their assessment of the applicant’s abilities and fit for the position.
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LETTERS REQUIRE WORK It takes a lot of work and time for students to generate a portfolio of materials to inform letter writers’ work and for professors to write letters of recommendation. Faculty members feel a strong sense of responsibility to write detailed and thoughtful letters of recommendation, and the process is often rewarding when students find jobs and paths that are a great fit. However, it is helpful for students to be aware that most letters of recommendation get written during evenings, weekends and holidays. It is really appreciated when students do everything possible to facilitate the process for the letter writer. START NOW TO PREPARE FOR FUTURE OPPORTUNITIES Always have a working resume and/or curriculum vitae (CV) ready to use.
• A resume is a concise (one-page) list of experiences and skills relevant to a particular job. • A CV is a more detailed summary of experiences and accomplishments, and it is typically utilized in academic environments (e.g., internship in an academic setting; research assistant position; graduate school application).
Even if you don’t have a lot of experience so far, building the foundation of your resume and CV will make it easy to update when you need it on short notice.
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AT THE POINT YOU NEED A LETTER OF RECOMMENDATION Think about who would be able to write the most wellinformed letter about your work: Who knows you best and has the most relevant experiences to describe? Your academic advisor may be able to help you decide what combination of letter writers would be the best fit. As soon as you anticipate that you will need a letter, ask the professor if s/he feels knowledgeable enough about you to write a positive letter of recommendation. In most cases you should ask at least one month before a letter of recommendation is due, but ask earlier if possible. If the professor seems reluctant to write a letter or if s/he asks if you can think of anyone else who knows you better, seriously consider whether you want that person to supply a letter for you. This professor may simply feel that s/he doesn’t have enough experience with you to provide the level of detail required for a strong letter. LOGISTICAL CONSIDERATIONS
• Prepare a packet of materials to inform the professor’s letter-writing work. • Ask for the professor’s preference regarding whether this should be provided in hard or soft copy. • Provide the materials at least three weeks before the first application deadline. • If you are asking for more than one letter, provide a spreadsheet listing all of the information for each application, in order of the application deadlines.
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• Whenever possible, organize your materials and information and provide all of it to letter writers in one batch. Keep in mind that faculty members in the Psychology Department are often managing letters of recommendation for 5-10 students (and alumni) at a time. If you send the materials and/or requests piecemeal across several messages or across time, it will be difficult for the professor to keep track of them and use them effectively. It is often most efficient for professors to complete letters for a student all at one time, instead of in multiple episodes. Having all of the materials available at once is tremendously helpful.
• Employers and graduate schools may require letters of recommendation to be submitted in a variety of different ways. Please provide letter writers with clear instructions for this regarding each letter you request.
ONLINE—The letter writer will receive an email prompt from the institution to submit the letter online.
• As you input information about your letter writers in an online application, submit as much information as possible (e.g., title, institution, address).
• Be aware that for some applications, letters of recommendation cannot be submitted until your application is submitted. Please avoid submitting applications close to the deadline! This may leave only a short window of time between when the professor receives her/his email prompt and the submission deadline.
EMAIL—Letter should be emailed directly to an individual or program. Make sure to provide the individual’s name and address. - 6 -
U.S. MAIL—Letter should be printed out and mailed directly to the program. In this case, you should provide a pre-addressed, pre-stamped envelope to the letter writer. SUBMITTED WITH APPLICATION—Letter should be printed out, signed across the seal by the letter writer, and returned to the student to be submitted along with the rest of the application. FINAL TIPS: BUILDING A STRONG FOUNDATION FOR LETTERS OF RECOMMENDATION
• Take all of your work seriously, not just meetings or tasks that count toward a grade. Professors get to know you in every interaction, and often the approach you take to informal work is even more representative of your character and work ethic than your performance on formal academic work.
• Some behaviors to avoid: • Repeatedly asking for grade adjustments within or across courses. The benefit to your grade will not outweigh the relational costs of consistently questioning professors’ grading decisions. • Repeatedly asking for special treatment (e.g., dead-line extensions, off-schedule quiz/exam times, last-minute requests). These requests should be limited to truly extraordinary and unavoidable situations.
• Demonstrate good teamwork and citizenship in group projects. Collaboration is a critical skill. Showing that you can learn how to adapt and bring out the best in a collaborative situation, even in non-ideal circumstances, shows your potential to successfully manage almost any job or relationship. - 7 -
MATERIALS AND INFORMATION TO PROVIDE TO LETTER WRITERS Checklist Resume and/or CV
Details and Examples CV is used for positions in most academic environments.
This may help the letter writer to highlight coursework relevant to the position.
Copy of any essays or personal statements This will help the letter writer understand how you are submitting with your application you have told your story. List of classes you have taken with the Consider scanning a graded paper from a course professor, including the term (e.g., Fall 2015) you have taken with the professor and attaching and the grade you earned it, to jog her/his memory of your work. Information about each position to which you are applying (listed in order of appli cation due date): Name/title of each position (including Post-baccalaureate Fellowship in Developmental specific type of degree, if relevant) and Computational Social Neuroscience in the Toddler Developmental Disabilities Clinic/Yale Early Full name of each program or department Social Cognition Lab at the Yale Child Study Center Full name of each employer or institution Research Assistant position in the Henry M. Jackson Foundation for the Advancement of Military Medicine at Walter Reed Hospital Master of Arts Program in Counseling and Student Personnel Psychology at the University of Minnesota
Deadline for each letter to be received by the institution/employer
Some letter writers may request an email reminder four to five days before each deadline.
How each letter should be submitted (online, email, US Mail, with application, other method)
Do something today that your future self will thank you for.
Washington and Lee University Psychology Recommendations