Applying to grad school, not sure who to ask for the recommendation.
October 9, 2013 9:23 AM   Subscribe

I am currently in the process of applying to grad school. I was counting on my former advisor (who wrote a glowing letter of support for me when applying for my previous job) to write me one, but am not getting a response. I would like suggestions on what to do/what other types of people qualify to write a graduate school recommendation.

I sent an email a few weeks back with no reply. I will try sending another, but she was already in her 70's back when I was her student so I am fearing the worst. I know she retired to another country and doesn't work at my alma mater anymore.

I have no other teachers that I am particularly close to, and am thus unsure of who I should ask. What types of people are considered fair game for grad school recommendations? I have some coworkers that would gladly help me out, but from what I have been told professors/advisors are the way to go.

Should I keep searching my list of current contacts, and ask someone I don't know well (plus have not talked to for over five years)? Or are there feasible ways (volunteering, tutoring, etc) to procure one from someone new in a relatively short timespan (3,4-ish months)? If I were to, say, volunteer - would a volunteer supervisor have the same impact a recommendation from a teacher/advisor would have?

Help me, MeFites!
posted by Kamelot123 to Education (9 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
You could inquire with your old department about OldProf's welfare and residence.

Ask other profs that you weren't close to. It's not weird to get requests like this several years after someone leaves, and they should have enough records to write you a letter. They'll almost certainly have your grades somewhere, but it would help if you had copies of papers and so on that you could send them new copies of.

A recommendation letter from someone who was not and had never been a prof would be completely useless unless it's from the Lord, a President of the United States, or someone whose letter truthfully states "I am a rich bastard who will give you $MILLIONS if you admit Kamelot123."

Also: Bust ass on the GRE or other appropriate test.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:35 AM on October 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

I had this cunundrum when I applied to grad school about 15 years after I had graduated with my BA. I asked professors I took multiple classes from. I got an amusing letter that said, "I don't remember RB, but judging from her grades she was a good student."

I got in.

What's the program? My BA was in English and my MBA MBA.

If it's something like Social Work, letters from Directors of Programs would work well.

When I applied for a grant to study a new Masters in Education with an emphasis on ESOL, I had a friend of the family who was highly placed in the Education community write me a recommendation (I didn't get that one, but it was really competative.)

My point is, people who can truthfully speak to your affinity for the subject and your abilities as a scholar would provide good recommendations.

Good luck!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 9:36 AM on October 9, 2013

In general, a letter from a non-professor isn't great, but it can depend on your field. If you've been working in a related field for the past few years, a letter from your employer can be good. (I'm assuming you need at least two letters of recommendation, so you would definitely want the second to be from a professor that speaks to your academic ability, even if you didn't know them incredibly well.)

Also, if you've only sent one email a few weeks ago, definitely follow up. It depends on the person, but I had a few professors who could be incredibly helpful, but you had to bug them a little and basically assume that if they didn't reply to an email within a few days, they had missed it or forgotten and it totally fine to email again.
posted by raeka at 9:50 AM on October 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

What type of graduate school? If you are going back for an MBA a recommendation from your boss is perfectly valid.
posted by COD at 10:01 AM on October 9, 2013

When you follow up, include a scan of the glowing letter she provided before (if you can) to make it easier for her to write this recommendation.

Are you still interested in Asian-Pacific studies? If so, I think getting recommendations from contacts you made while living in Japan might be appropriate.

In any case, err on the side of getting too many recommendations, especially if they must be submitted directly, given that you can't be sure this one will come through. When I applied to grad school I sought an extra recommendation from a prior boss in a pertinent field. It was my only non-academic reference but I thought it would be the strongest. The school sent me a post card telling me that my application was complete; I assumed that meant that all of the references I had identified in my submission had come through. Later the school accepted me and I sent my references thank-you notes.

Years later the old boss got in touch as part of the "Make Amends" work in her 12-step program. She apologized profusely for never submitting my recommendation while in the throes of her addiction. She remembered getting an envelope from me, which she never opened because she thought it was an admonishment. Since it didn't matter and I never knew, it's a pity she carried the guilt and worry of wondering if she'd torpedoed my chances at grad school (I only applied to one school). Had I not identified an extra reference, that might have been the case.
posted by carmicha at 10:07 AM on October 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

I started law school 8 years after graduating from college with a major in theatre, so my former professors wouldn't have been good recommenders even if they remembered me. Instead, I got letters of recommendations from people I worked with who were lawyers or who could attest to my intelligence and work ethic. That worked fine.
posted by janey47 at 10:23 AM on October 9, 2013

I have some coworkers that would gladly help me out, but from what I have been told professors/advisors are the way to go.

It differs greatly if you're talking about a professional program (e.g., MBA, MPA, MSW) or an academic program (e.g., PhD). But generally, the best letter of recommendation is the best letter of recommendation. If you have a boss who can speak glowingly of your work ethic, ability to learn new things and all-around awesomeness, go with that over an professor who can spout some platitudes about you that are clearly based entirely on reading your transcript. Letters of recommendation are far more effective when they round out your profile rather than just intensifying things that are already evident from the rest of your profile.
posted by Etrigan at 10:38 AM on October 9, 2013

I would call up the department office (admin function) and find out what contact information they have for your retired prof. Maybe they've got a phone number, or a new email address, in which case you try again to contact her.
Maybe the news is "she's now in a nursing home and only talks to family", (or worse) in which case you make a plan B.

Plan B1: You know she wrote you a glowing letter of recommendation previously. Do you have a copy of it? Do you think your former employer has a copy of it? Even if you've got only a draft of it in your email inbox (i.e. "Dear Kamelot, here is a copy of the letter I plan on sending") you can print that out and attach a note. "Prof. Z retired in 2008 and cannot be contacted directly; I submit here a general letter of recommendation provided by her in 2006."

Plan B2: If you were an academically strong student, or if your strengths in college were not well-represented by the documentation they've already asked for (i.e. they ask for GPA not a full transcript and you did much better in relevant classes than irrelevant; or the transcript includes "honors" on the diploma but not the fact that you did an independent study to get them) then you get in touch with professors you had a few classes with, and ask if they're willing to help you out.
Ask if he/she would like you to write a letter about yourself for them to edit and sign. Even if they say no, write a social note describing yourself and your situation and thanking them for their help. Basically you're seeding their brain with positive phrases to help give them ideas - it's like writing the cover letter for an application, you mention your experiences at the school and how you think they prepared you for the job/school/position you want. Describe your project and your relationship with oldadvisor (such a great prof and thank you for helping me in her absence!), describe your grades in general and in the classes you took with them (I really did learn a lot from X, Y, Z course), describe the skills you developed then that help you now (and you're so excited about the current opportunity and how AlmaMater prepared you), and thank the professor and the department for helping you in those past times, and for their willingness to help you now.

Plan B3: Pick another coworker or manager, ideally someone from a different job/era than the ones you've got so far, or someone who saw a different side of you. It's totally okay to coach your references on what kinds of things the school is probably interested in. "John, I'm asking you because my other references mostly saw me during X, but I know you and I did Y. I think other parts of my application talk a lot about Z, so I was thinking that your support would really help with the Y-W context."

(note: this is a great question because you've made me realize I might have this problem looming: one of my references is now emeritus, and it would be wise to get a generic letter of recommendation, and keep it on file in case of his... er... unavailability)
posted by aimedwander at 11:31 AM on October 9, 2013

If you draft an outline of what you want people to write about in your letters of recommendation, people will write them more quickly for you. Everyone appreciates this because it makes their burden lighter and more straight forward, so always offer to do that when posing requests.
posted by oceanjesse at 9:31 PM on October 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

« Older Where should I go backpacking in Minnesota this...   |   Streaming Brazilian radio with good music AND... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.