STEP 1 – Pick the right people to write your letters
A strong letter of recommendation is an honest, detailed, critical, evidence-based argument for why someone has more potential than the rest of the applicants. If we have worked together on a research project, or if you served as a teaching assistant in one my courses, I can characterize your performance and potential on a number of dimensions (e.g., professionalism, responsibility, initiative). However, if the extent of our collaboration is limited to you having been a student in one of my courses than I am probably not your best choice for a letter.
Letters base solely on coursework are very limited in scope and may actually be counterproductive. An instructor writing that you earned an "A" in the course and were an active participant does not tell reviewers much more than what is already listed on your transcript. Compared to letters for applicants that have a lot more to say, a limited letter is a weak one and will not help you secure the competitive spot you are going for.
If you truly feel that your coursework was truly exceptional (top 1% nationwide) and is very relevant to the position you are applying for I can imagine the benefit, but otherwise I would suggest that you consider another writer. Someone who has worked with you more closely (even outside of academia) can offer you a much stronger recommendation based on their experience with you.
STEP 2 – Prepare the materials
To help me get a sense of what you are applying for and how my recommendation fits in to your application portfolio I will need:
- Some information about the program or position you are applying for and the knowledge, skills, and abilities that they are looking for.
- A brief statement from you explaining why you are interested in applying
- A timeline of our work together (it gets hard to keep track of specific semesters for someone who works with a lot of students and I would not want to get anything wrong)
- A copy of any materials that you will be submitting with your application (e.g., resume, unofficial transcript, drafts of personal statements)
- Any other forms or materials that I will need to submit
STEP 3 – Draft the letter yourself
Before I write you a letter I am going to ask you write a draft letter you believe I could submit. The purpose here is that I want to see exactly what it is you expect I can say about my experience with your performance and potential and how that fits with the nature of the position. If there is a form to complete, how would you honestly and objectively rate your own performance and potential? What evidence do you think I can provide that you have the knowledge, skills and abilities that they are seeking?
Do not exaggerate or embellish because I will not. To be blunt, if you are having a hard time writing a strong letter, so will I (revisit Step #1).
STEP 4 – Schedule a meeting
Regardless of who you decide to ask for a letter I wish you the best of luck in pursuing your goals. Go Terps!
Dr. Scott Roberts
Director of Undergraduate Studies
Department of Psychology, University of Maryland
1107 Bio-Psychology Bldg, College Park, MD 20742
(e) firstname.lastname@example.org (p) 301.405.5866 (f) 301.405.5915