What if, when you take a lab or a class with an Adjunct Instructor or Professor, you not only do very well, but you also think he/she would be able to write an excellent recommendation letter talking about how you were the shining star in that class/lab? Will the program you are applying to give the same weight to a letter signed by someone who is not a faculty member, or does not have a Ph.D. or M.S.? This final part of the series provides advice regarding non-traditional letter writers. Unfortunately, there’s not a fast rule about this. Some schools prefer the letter writers to have advanced degrees, because those individuals have successfully completed graduate school and will be able to assess your abilities better. Some schools prefer letter writers to be full-time faculty, because faculty members are vested in the reputation of their school. All of this also depends on who evaluates your application and their own personal opinions. So no, there’s no easy answer. But there are options:
- Call the program that you are applying to and ask. Some schools will give you guidance, some schools won’t. Other schools will leave it up to you.
- Ask the lead faculty member to write the letter. If an Adjunct Instructor taught a lab, and you did well in both the lab and class portion, consider asking the lead faculty member to write a letter and ask him/her to incorporate input from the Adjunct.
- Ask the coordinating faculty member to co-sign the letter. If the class and the lab are taught by Adjunct Instructors, consider asking the faculty member that coordinates the class to co-sign the letter with them.
- Request letters from instructors of advanced courses. I strongly recommend doing 1 and 2 only for high-level courses, not for introductory courses.
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 recommendation.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
A 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.