What is a "professional" recommendation for grad school?
September 8, 2008 7:08 PM   Subscribe

When a grad school says they accept "professional" recommendations, what does that mean? Is it a bad idea to get someone you've worked with in a community organization to write a recommendation?

I'm 15 years out of undergrad and applying to grad school (MS in Information Science) for the first time. The program I'm applying to doesn't require GREs, just transcripts and 3 letters of recommendation. I've confirmed with the department admissions coordinator that they don't need letters from academic sources; professional sources are fine. Since my undergrad years are so far in my past, I suspect the recommendations play a much stronger part in the review/acceptance process than they would for a recent grad. Now I'm struggling with whom to ask.

My current boss is an obvious first choice: We have worked together for 10 years and he thinks very highly of me, my abilities, and my suitability for the field I've chosen. He also recognizes that what I would learn in the program would benefit him and his office.

A previous supervisor is my second choice: Although that job wasn't a good fit, we have remained friends and she has told me that she thinks I should pursue additional schooling and would always be happy to be a reference for grad school or jobs.

The third choice is where I get stuck. I'm leaning towards asking a friend who has served with me on the boards of two community organizations for several of years. While I do have tons of current and former co-workers I could ask, I feel that the community work I have done is more representative of my skills and abilities than what I've done in the restrictive environment of the office and her letter may broaden the perspective of the reviewing committee. She is also the only person who has the complete picture of what I'm thinking about grad school and where it will take me since I've been using her husband as a mentor and she's been party to some of those conversations.

Is asking outside the workplace a bad idea for the recommendation? Will the reviewers wonder why I've asked a non-professional contact for a letter?

Please note: I'm not asking about the relationship aspects. All of these people are individuals I consider friends. While I am certain that they would all write positively, I am quite happy to waive my right to see the recommendations so they feel free to be completely honest. I am only concerned about the school's perception of including a recommendation from a non-paid-work source.
posted by weebil to Education (5 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: It's common practice for professional, in this situation, to merely mean something non-academic. A letter of recommendation is a letter of recommendation and if you can get a great letter from a community organization, then so be it. It still is work, you know? I don't think they're going to be picky when they see it's a non profit or something. It'll probably improve your odds!

Good Luck!
posted by saxamo at 7:16 PM on September 8, 2008

I had letters of recommendation for grad school from places I volunteered at. It all worked out. I think it's fine.
posted by All.star at 8:08 PM on September 8, 2008

I agree that professional refers to a context that uses your working/professional skills (or some kind of other). No problem if the skills are being used in a nonprofit/volunteer context.
posted by metahawk at 9:12 PM on September 8, 2008

Best answer: Previous commenters are generally correct: letters from community organizations should be just fine. The admissions officers know your situation.

The one thing you want to keep in mind here is that you need a professional reference, not a character reference. Make sure that your recommender is in a position to discuss the skills at least tangentially relevant to the academic program in some significant way. If you can find someone who is willing to say you're a halfway-decent guy, that's not going to help you very much. But if you can find someone who can say that you routinely complete tasks in a timely fashion without having to be closely supervised, that's golden.
posted by valkyryn at 3:40 AM on September 9, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks for the answers! I was pretty certain that a non-supervisor's recommendation would be fine provided it addressed the skills relevant to the academic program and your answers have reassured me.

saxamo: I don't know if it will improve my odds, but I do think it's an important statement about my time management and organizational skills that I've been able to successfully balance a full-time job and leadership roles in volunteer organizations.

valkyryn: Many thanks for making the distinction between professional and character references. This was clear in my head, but seeing it mentioned in your answer has made me realize I need to make sure it's clear in my recommenders' heads, too.
posted by weebil at 8:17 PM on September 9, 2008

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