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How to Request a Strong Letter of Recommendation from Dr. Appleby

Linda Abraham interviewed Dr. Drew Appleby, Professor Emeritus at Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis, an expert on graduate admissions, specifically graduate admissions in psychology. He was kind of enough to give Accepted permission to post his personal recommendations for “How to Request a Strong Letter of Recommendation from Dr. Appleby.” While we are sure that not every professor would have the identical list and you should use your judgment in following it when working with your professors, Dr. Appleby’s recommendations definitely have broad application and are a wonderful reference.

A. The first step in this process is to ask me the following question: "Can you write me a strong letter of recommendation for a job or a graduate school application?" I can write anyone a letter of recommendation, but I unfortunately I cannot write everyone a strong letter of recommendation. I must be sufficiently familiar with you and your work—and your work must be of sufficient quality—so I can provide specific positive examples of the knowledge, skills, and characteristics that your potential employer or graduate school admissions committee is interested in knowing about you (i.e., they will not be impressed if I tell them what a good person you are, but fail to support my assertions with strong evidence). If my answer to this question is yes, then proceed to the next step. If my answer is no, it is not because I do not like you. It is because I sincerely believe that I cannot write you a letter that will help you to obtain a job or gain admission to graduate school.

B. Read the Information That Can Help Me Write You a Strong Letter of Recommendation for a Job (or Graduate School) form on the following pages very carefully. Then choose a minimum of six characteristics you would like me to comment on in your letter of recommendation, and give me very specific behavioral examples of what you have done during your undergraduate career that I can use as evidence to support these characteristics. For example, if you want me to say you possess teaching skills/potential (from the graduate school form), you may want to describe:

  1. how you created a variety of test questions in your Tests and Measurements class,
  2. the positive reviews you received for oral presentations you have made in my classes, and
  3. that I selected you to serve as a TA in one of my classes, and that you created a new technique or strategy to help our students learn the material more effectively.
  4. If you want me to say that you have shown initiative and persistence (from the job form), you may want to describe:
    1. how you proposed a new activity for the Psychology Club,
    2. wrote a proposal to obtain funding from student government,
    3. coordinated that activity with the psychology faculty, and
    4. successfully carried out the new activity
  5. Please be sure you describe actual behaviors that you have engaged in, not just descriptions of your personality characteristics (e.g., Don’t say that you are motivated and hard working because you possess a strong work ethic. Give me an example of something that you have actually done that will allow me to provide behavioral evidence of your motivation and hard work, such as the fact that you wrote a 20-page paper with 20 references in my class when I only required a 10-page paper with 10 references.)
  6. It is not necessary to fill in all the blanks on these forms; no one possesses all these skills and characteristics. Give this task some careful thought. Your time will be well spent, and I will be able to write a stronger letter of recommendation because it will contain specific evidence to support your positive characteristics I will describe.
  7. I am sure you have done a number of things I have not had the opportunity to observe directly, but which I can comment on favorably in terms of their social value or how they added to your preparation for the job or graduate program to which you are applying. Please create a paragraph that begins with “I would also like to mention...,” and then goes on to describe these activities in the 3rd person (she or he, not I or me) and send it to me as an attachment to an email message so I can paste it into your letter. Writing this paragraph will give you more control over the content of your letter and will help me to write you an even stronger letter.
  8. Obtain a manila file folder, print your name on the tab, and fill the folder with the following materials:
    1. a current and professional-appearing copy of your resume or curriculum vitae
    2. your completed "Information that Can Help Me Write You a Strong Letter of Recommendation for a Job (or Graduate School)" form
    3. all of the recommendation forms you have received from your potential employers or graduate programs — make sure you have filled in all the parts of these forms you are supposed to complete (e.g., the program for which you are applying, your signature, the date, and the waiver form — I suggest you waive your right to see the letter)
    4. stamped envelopes that are addressed — typed, not printed — to each employer or graduate program (Exception: If you must include my letter in your application package, give me an envelope with your name and address on it so I can mail it to you.)
  9. Write a list on the front of the file folder of each school or employer to which a letter is to be sent, followed by these four pieces of information:
    1. the deadline by which the graduate school or employer must receive my letter,
    2. where the letter is to be sent (i.e., the employer or graduate school or to you),
    3. if there is a form that I must complete in addition to my letter, and
    4. the specific graduate program (e.g., Master of Science in school psychology) or job (e.g., substance abuse counselor) for which you are applying
  10. Write your telephone number and e-mail address on the folder so I can contact you if I need any clarifications.

C. Give me this folder at least one month before the earliest deadline of your letters so I have sufficient time to write an excellent letter of recommendation for you. Effective letters of recommendation take time to write, so please do not put me in the position of having to rush this important process. Please heed the old saying, “A lack of planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part.” It really is true.

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