Crash Course: Letters of Recommendation

No matter what kind of application process you’re working through, you’ll likely need some letters of recommendation. There are a lot of common misconceptions about how to go about securing these letters that I will explain here; I hope this post will help clear some of them up!

As I progressed through my Princeton career, people kept telling me that I needed to get to know my professors if I wanted them to write letters of recommendation for me. At times, this seemed impossible; how could I get to know a professor from a lecture class of over 300 people, when office hours were held by my preceptor? As my senior year rolled around and my law school application deadlines got closer and closer, I realized I needed to mobilize and get the letter process started. A meeting with the Princeton pre-law adviser in Career Services left me feeling extremely confident about the process!

Choose your recommenders wisely

The first step in the recommendation letter process is choosing your writers. More often than not, this can be a difficult step. One misconception is that your recommenders have to be professors you had in your junior or senior year. This is absolutely not the case! Many students prefer asking their JP and/or thesis advisers because a more recent professor is more likely to remember you. However, if you have a good relationship with professors from your earlier years at Princeton, they could also be strong recommenders! Your letters should convey a clear picture of you in your application. Thus, your writers should be able to speak about your academics, as well as about you as a person. This is extremely specific, so it is not surprising that it may prove difficult to select your recommenders. A great place to start is coming up with five to six character traits that you want to be highlighted in your application⁠—for example, “capacity for independent work,” “conflict resolution skills,’’ “dependability,” and “ability to adapt to change.”

Once you’ve determined which characteristics are most important to you, look at your transcript. Which professors can best speak to those characteristics? Which staff members? Another common misconception is that a recommender can only be a professor you’ve had. However, a recommender could also be the person who leads your community service group, or that professor you’ve gotten to know over the years but have never taken a course with. After narrowing down the professors and/or staff members, assign characteristics to recommenders. In other words, decide which characteristics you’d like the recommenders to highlight in their letters.

According to the pre-law adviser, this next step is crucial: meet with your recommenders in person to ask them to write a letter. Many students think simply emailing the recommender is sufficient, but an in-person meeting goes a long way! Come prepared with a letter you’ve written to them, asking them to be a recommender and highlighting your desired characteristics. Include examples of how you embody those characteristics, and tie it back to their course, if applicable. Remind them of who you are, and include the deadline at the end of your letter. Your letter will be extremely helpful to your recommenders in their own writing process. After your recommendation letters are submitted, make sure to send a handwritten thank-you note to each of your recommenders!

Although each graduate school application is different, these tips can be implemented across all disciplines and can even be implemented across all years, since many internships and other summer programs require recommendation letters. Good luck to all those in the application process!

Andrea Reino, Social Sciences Correspondent