How to Ask for Letters of Recommendation – Part II

So, who do you ask for a Letter of Recommendation?  Your research mentor? Definitely! A humanities professor you took a class with? Maybe. A science professor from a senior-level course in which you performed exceptionally well? That sounds like a good bet! Your supervisor at the supermarket where you work part time? Only if you are applying to the School of Supermarket Sciences. An adjunct instructor from one of your lab sections? It depends, and we will talk more about that in our next installment.  For this second part of the series, we’ll explore tips to ensure you get a stellar letter of recommwriting1endation.

You want your letter writers to showcase all those characteristics that make you uniquely qualified to be a successful individual in the path you choose to pursue. How do you make sure they know about these qualities? Here’s some advice about that and other topics:

  1. Ask them if they need any materials or information to write your letter.  Make sure they have the guidelines for the particular institution you are applying to and ask them if they need a CV or resume, transcripts, or even a copy of your personal statement. Make it easy for them to write about you. Tell them if there is anything you want them to include (like how you helped struggling students with their class, or your level of aptitude with techniques in their field). Make sure they know where you are applying, to what program, and why you chose that program. The more they know about you, the more they can use to make your letter unique and not just generic.
  2. When to ask – it depends.  For applications to graduate school, you should begin asking for letters before the end of the fall semester prior to applying to graduate school. For medical school, if you are planning to ask for a committee letter, you can ask anytime during your time at John Jay (the best bet is right after you receive your grades at the end of the semester), and your Pre-Health Advisor (aka, Dr. Sanabria-Valentin) will save them for when you are ready to apply.
  3. Give them enough time to write the letter. Do not leave it for the last minute, you don’t want your letter writer to do so in a hurry! Asking them 3-4 months before the application is due is your safest bet. Asking too late puts unnecessary pressure on your letter writer and makes you look like someone who does not plan ahead, and that is NOT the impression you want to give to someone writing a letter on your behalf.
  4. About waiving your rights to read the letter. The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) is a Federal law that protects the privacy of student education records, and it applies to recommendation letters. This means that you have a right to read any recommendation letter. Should you exercise your right? Waiving your FERPA rights shows your letter writer that you trust them and that you have no doubts in your own abilities, so it is a good idea to be upfront about it. Some letter writers will insist that you read the letter before it is submitted to make sure they didn’t get any details wrong. That’s OK, even if you waived your right. Some will require you waive your FERPA rights. That’s OK too, especially since they answered “Yes” when you asked them if they could write a strong letter on your behalf (see part I). Some letter writers won’t even mention reading the letter, and it is your call if you want to bring up your preference.

How to Ask for Letters of Recommendation – Part I

typingA strong letter of recommendation (LoR) from a faculty member, research mentor, or employer goes a long way in gaining admission to professional school. Admission committees look at these letters to evaluate candidates because the selection process is not all about grades and entrance exams scores, the committee members also want to learn about you from their colleagues. They expect that letter writers will provide an honest assessment of your abilities, competencies, and, most importantly, their opinion on how well they expect you will perform in your chosen profession. Most graduate schools ask for 2-3 letters and provide clear instructions about the content they expect in the letter. Medical and other health professional schools ask for either a number of letters or a “committee letter” provided by the institution. In this first post of a series, here are tips on how to get great LoR:

  1. Think of every professor as a potential letter writer. At the start of the semester you won’t know how well you will fare in your classes or if you will want your professor to write you a letter, so your best bet is to go into every class thinking of your professor as a potential letter writer. Make sure your instructors know who you are and that they notice the effort you are putting into the class. Participate during class and use the office hours when you need them.
  2. Only ask people that KNOW you.  Make sure your letter writer knows who you are and what class you took with him or her. Otherwise, it will not only be an awkward conversation (“Who are you again?”), but, if he or she accepts to write it, the letter will also be vague and generic at best.
  3. When you ask, ask if they can write a STRONG letter of recommendation.  Just because your instructor says yes it does not mean they will write a glowing letter. By asking them directly, you give your professor the chance to back out gracefully if they feel they don’t know you well enough.
  4. Ask in person.  If it is possible, ask during office hours or make an appointment to meet and ask them then. If not, email is the next-best method of communication. Do not ask a potential letter writer in the hallway or right after class, as they are likely on their way somewhere else.

Finals Week

keep-calm-and-ace-your-finals-52Good luck to all of our students during Finals Week. If you need a quiet place to study or are planning to organize a study group, try the PRISM office.  We are open 9:30-4:30 every day.  Feel free to stop by anytime or to contact Dr. Sanabria-Valentin to reserve time.

Here’s some good advice on how to prepare your study space and be more effective while studying.


John Jay’s Student Travel Fund

StudentTravelBannerInterested in going to a conference, but you already used up your allotted PRISM funds? John Jay College can provide funding for a second trip!

 Student Travel Fund

The Student Travel Fund provides students and student groups with funding to travel to conferences to enhance their professional and academic development. The maximum contribution for an individual proposal is $1,500. The maximum contribution for a group (4 or more students) is $5,000. Undergraduate students with at least a 2.5 GPA who have completed at least 30 credits are eligible.  Transfer students in their first semester must submit an official transcript from their previous institution. Deadline May 15, 2015. For more information, please go here.

Cheryl Williams Student Presentation Scholarship
The Cheryl Williams Student Presentation Scholarship supports students interested in presenting at professional conferences up to $1,000. Cheryl loved the students of John Jay and created this fund to ensure that learning and growth would be provided for them in the future.  Rolling Deadline; please submit an application at least 6-8 weeks prior to the professional conference that you plan on attending. For more information, please go here.

Young Scholars Award
The Young Scholars Award promotes student participation at scholarly conferences. If approved by the Scholarship Committee, students can receive up to a maximum of $1,000. Rolling Deadline; please submit an application at least 6-8 weeks prior to the professional conference that you plan on attending. For more information, please go here.

Science: There’s an app for that!

Commons_media_discovery_appWhen I got my first smartphone (a second generation iPhone, way back when) the first thing I did was go the App store and look up science apps. Yes, I’m that much of a nerd, it didn’t even occur to me to look up games. The first one I downloaded was “Molecules,” a free app that renders 3D images of protein structures and other molecules based on data available from multiple databases. You can switch between viewing modes (Ball-and-Stick or Space-fill). Aside from looking up random molecules, and staring at them, there’s not that much you can do with it unless you know how to create protein structure files. Then you can visualize your own proteins!

One of the first science apps that actually had some application for bench scientists came from New England Biolabs. “NEB Tools” gives you information on restriction enzymes, helps you design double digestions, and also helps you set up your PCR reaction. Life Technologies has taken it a step further with its app “CloningBench,” that does the same as the NEB one and also has a molarity calculator (for those of us who are not so good at conversions), a PCR MasterMix calculator, and even a ligation calculator for the cloners out there. Life Technologies also has some free apps for applications like cytometry, cell culture, and one to check the spectral compatibility for fluorophores for RT-PCR and other applications.

Another free one I’ve heard about is “Protocolpedia,” a biology protocol database designed by the website of the same name, which is maintained by a community of researchers who post pre-tested protocols and also has forums where you can ask for help with your experiments. The app also has a calculator, access to videos and other educational resources, and lets you select your favorite protocols and store them for easy access. Always check with your advisor before starting a protocol not designed in your lab!

For the chemists out there, there are a bunch of free apps, too, like Sigma-Aldrich’s “HPLC Calculator” which can help you determine the best transfer conditions between columns, recommends flow-rates depending on the column, among other applications. Another app, “Elemental,” helps you create chemical sketches of molecules, estimates chemical properties based on the molecular composition, has a built-in Periodic Table, and helps you sketch chemical reactions. Any sketches produced can be tweeted or e-mailed from your phone.

Most of these apps are available for iOS and Android platforms. Do you have a favorite Science app? Let us know in the comments section!