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Applying to graduate school: Letters of recommendation

This spring a student preparing graduate school applications wrote to LINGANTH, asking about letters of recommendation. The student wondered how an anthropology major from a university with no linguistics department could get recommendations for graduate programs in linguistic anthropology.

With their kind permission, the following responses from Judy Pine, Paul Garrett, Margaret Buckner, Oona Schmid, and Shannon Bischoff are reproduced in the hopes that they might be helpful to other would-be graduate students.

-Chad Nilep

In order to have a strong letter, you really need it to come from someone with a basis for judging your potential. That means someone for whom you have done substantial work.  It is far more important that they know your capabilities than that they be in a specific field of study.

Of course, you need someone who can speak to your ability to complete the work you are proposing to do in your application.  And you need to think about the rank of the referees – a full professor outranks an associate, and associate outranks an assistant.  If you have a full professor for whom you have done a research project, and especially if that project involved skills you will also be using in the graduate work you are proposing, then they are the absolute best reference.

Be sure to treat the request for a letter as formally as you would a job application.  It is entirely inappropriate to write a “Hey, prof, can you do me a solid?” sort of email.  You are asking your referee to spend some significant time and thought on a carefully crafted letter on your behalf.  Be sure you remind them of the work you did with them, connect that work to the project you are proposing for graduate work, and explain why the particular graduate program(s) to which you are applying are such a great fit for you and your project.

That is also information that should be in your application letter, frankly.  That is, you should explain, in a fairly formal register with the most excellent writing of which you are capable, why you are a great fit for grad program X and why grad program X is a great fit for you.

Judy Pine

Adding to Judy’s good suggestions:

Once a professor has agreed to write a letter for you, you should provide him/her with a single clear, comprehensive set of practical information: a complete list of the programs to which you’re applying; the due dates for each; whether the letter is to be submitted online or sent by email or regular mail (and the address to which it is to be sent, if the latter); a link to the main website of each program; and anything else that you can think of that might be useful.  Basically, you should put yourself in the professor’s place and anticipate every little thing that s/he is going to need in order to write a good letter for you, in ample time, and get it sent off to wherever it needs to go.

If you haven’t seen the professor in a while, it may be a good idea to update him/her by providing your résumé/CV, maybe a copy of your transcript, and anything else that might help.  (But don’t send too much stuff–only what’s most relevant to your application.)

And it is definitely a good idea to send him/her your application essay/personal statement as soon as you have it ready (or nearly ready), so that s/he can write the recommendation letter in a way that supports and reinforces your statement in the best ways possible.  (A really dedicated professor might even offer you some advice about ways that you can make your statement stronger.)

Paul Garrett

Here are the guidelines I give my students about letters of reference:

First, stop by, call, or email to ask if the faculty member is willing to write the letter, as far ahead as possible (several weeks is best).

After you get a positive response, stop by with, or email, the following information:

1.  Exactly what you’re applying for (degree and program, job title, etc.).  Give the full name and address of the program or job and describe it briefly.

2.  What specific points or qualities you want emphasized, why you’re applying for that particular program or job.

3.  A list of the courses and/or activities you’ve done with the faculty member—especially the semester and year.  Include special events, such as conference presentations.

4.  If it’s an online application, the web address or name of  the institution sending the link.

5.  If it’s a letter, whom to address the letter to, and what to do with it.  If it’s to be mailed, give the full address.  If it’s to be picked up, should it be sealed and signed?

6.  When the letter is due.

7.  A promise to remind the faculty member a few days before it’s due.   If you don’t send a reminder, it’s your fault if it doesn’t get sent.

8.  A promise to keep in touch with the faculty member.  Let him or her know whether you got the job, position, or acceptance.  And let him or her know how you’re doing from time to time.

-Margaret Buckner

I did want to mention that AAA has a resource for helping students and professionals locate programs, called our eAnthroGuide.

American Anthropological Association members can access a more robust version of this resource by logging in first.

Oona Schmid

A colleague of mine has a nice webpage echoing much of what has already been said about letters of recommendation. You can access it here In addition, the Linguist List provides information regarding a number of programs in linguistics that you can browse or search at Further, the Student Support page at Linguist List has a number of postings for financial assistance (i.e. funded PhD positions) that might be worth browsing. You can access the page here

Best of luck,

Shannon Bischoff

I’ll just add that many graduate schools in the US have application deadlines in January, February, or March, so the fall term is a good time to be looking for potential referees. Good luck.

(Chad again)