Grad school recommendations: whom to ask?
May 16, 2007 9:09 AM   Subscribe

If I've been out of college for twelve years, from whom do I get recommendations for graduate school?

For a variety of reasons, I'm unhappy with my "chosen" career (i.e. one that I fell into a decade ago, and from which I have yet to extricate myself), and I've decided to apply to graduate programs in creative writing. All of these programs require several recommendations, preferably from professors or others who know me in an "academic" context.

I understand that my writing samples will (depending on whom I choose to believe) be 80 - 90% of the schools' decision to accept or reject my application, but I'd prefer not to handicap myself by giving up on that 10 - 20%.

The difficulty here is that I completed my undergraduate degree twelve years ago, and I doubt that any of my college professors will remember enough about me to write compelling recommendations.

I have, as I see it, only one other option-- I'm currently taking a workshop at a non-academic community writing center, and could probably get that instructor to write a recommendation.

But from whom should I get the others? Former bosses / coworkers? Friends? Family? Random internet strangers? None of the literature I've found on the subject of applying to creative writing programs seems to address this.

And before this gets called out in MetaTalk as "OMG why is this anonymous?!?!?!," it's because I know for a fact that several of my current coworkers read metafilter (and may or may not be aware of my screen name here) and I'd prefer that my workplace not know that I am unhappy in my career and considering graduate school in an unrelated field.
posted by anonymous to Education (11 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
In my experience, this is the kind of question the people at the schools you're applying to are usually happy to answer. Call and ask to speak to the program director, he/she can tell you who would be an appropriate person to write a letter of recommendation.
posted by Rangeboy at 9:17 AM on May 16, 2007

Yes, call and ask the programs.
If it comes to it, you may be able to get a reference from an old prof by (asking first, and then) sending her some of your current work.
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:21 AM on May 16, 2007

Most definitely call the department(s) and ask what you should do. Sometimes a letter of recommendation is OK from an employer who may not work in the field you are looking to study in, but can attest to your strong work ethic or something like that.

But it depends on the school, so definitely call around and ask what you can do.
posted by sutel at 9:25 AM on May 16, 2007

Hey, I did close to what you're doing, too. Congrats! I got an MA in creative writing about six years out of undergrad, and now am getting a PhD ten years out of undergrad. I would say that the best letters you're going to get are going to be from former professors who know your writing -- I would contact your undergrad profs just in case they remember you. You never know. Sometimes they'll just ask to see some current writing. My undergrad writing prof had retired and I could not track him down, so I was in same boat. I am pretty sure letters from coworkers/friends/bosses are of little use for creative writing programs - maybe for biz school, but not for creative writing. They want somebody who knows you in that setting.

Depending on where you are, the instructors at those non-academic community writing centers can be very good sources for this. You don't need well-known people to write you letters, just people who are in the field and can attest to your work in a classroom. Sometimes the instructors at those writing centers are actually pretty accomplished, too, which isnt necessary, but doesnt hurt. For example, the Writers Center in DC has some fantastic faculty, many of whom are associated also with local colleges and universities with graduate programs. This is the route I took - I got to know some teachers there and had them write letters.

I would say to take more workshops at the community center - apps for most MFA programs aren't due until December or January, so if you can take 3 or 4 more workshops at the community center in that time, you could get the recs from those folks. You'll also have better writing samples (which in all this really is the most important part of your app), and show the MFA program that you're serious (you've been taking classes.)

It might also help find somebody to read your Statement of Purpose, as well, which can (depending on the program) also be very important. It's the Statement of Purpose, in my opinion, that's really going to sell you as somebody who deserves admission to one of these programs.

One thing to keep in mind - most programs are absurdly competitive. So do your research and apply to as many of them as you can afford to apply to - like 15, if you can afford the app cost.

If you want, email me (rexbrockington at yahoo) if you have questions. If you are in the DC area, I have info that might be very helpful to you.
posted by drobot at 9:29 AM on May 16, 2007 [2 favorites]

Sorry, one more thing - the message boards at Poets and Writers have a ton of info on this (and many other) topics related to the MFA app process. The URL is - you need to join to be able to view them, but once you sign up, go to the MFA board and click on the 'DIRECTORY - Topics in the MFA Forum' post, and the link to the Reference Letters forum will be there. I just skimmed it - there's lots of advice there applicable to your situation.
posted by drobot at 9:42 AM on May 16, 2007 [1 favorite]

I once asked a prof exactly this question. She pointed out that this is why students should keep a file of their returned papers and other work, complete with professor's notes.

She suggested that, should I find myself needing a rec from a prof after several years had passed, I should (ideally) make a personal visit to the professor, bringing along a copy of my work with their notes included. (Second best, she said, was sending a letter with enough detail to prompt her/his memory, and either include a copy of the original work or an offer to send the original work upon request.)

I ran this idea past two other profs I know well; they agreed that it seemed like a reasonable plan. I don't know how routinely this is practiced, if at all, but it seems a simple way to jog the memory.

Obviously, if you've discarded those papers, it's too late for this to be helpful. But if you still have them in a box somewhere, it would be worth digging them out.
posted by Elsa at 9:50 AM on May 16, 2007 [1 favorite]

Along with P&W mentioned above, you might want to look at the Creative Writing MFA Handbook blog. It's pretty quiet right now since it's admissions offseason, but the archives might be helpful.
posted by gnomeloaf at 10:23 AM on May 16, 2007 [1 favorite]

I did pretty much what you're doing, under similar circumstances. Nthing the recommendations to call the program and ask. My understanding is that MFA programs are used to people coming back to school after a long hiatus in an unfulfilling job and are thus pretty forgiving when it comes to whether or not the letters come from people within academia.

I think it is a very good idea, however, to have a letter from at least one instructor/mentor-type person who knows your writing. Your workshop instructor would be an ideal candidate in this regard.

I was able to get back in the good graces of one professor I had been somewhat close to, but had lost touch with. I sent a groveling, apologetic letter (by snail mail), and he responded quite graciously.

One other thought -- don't procrastinate on getting the letters. You don't want to have to ask for a letter and then add "Oh, BTW, the application deadline is in two days away."

Good luck!
posted by treepour at 11:09 AM on May 16, 2007

I went back for an MA in a totally unrelated field 4 years after doing the bachelors. Since it was an unrelated field, I had deficiencies that I had to do, and rather than pay the out of state fees at the new university to do these undergrad courses, I took them at a community college.

These professors were really amped to write letters and have discussions with me, particularly because I really cared about what they were teaching instead of taking it strictly to satisfy a requirement. Although community colleges may get a bad rap, I think these letters were far better than those I would have gotten from the undergrad university (Cal) professors who may or may not have remembered me.

Maybe this will help? Good luck!
posted by lil' ears at 11:37 AM on May 16, 2007 [1 favorite]

Did any of your professors inspire you? Drop him (or her) a line and tell him so. Tell him specifically what he did/said that inspired or excited you, and tell he how it has changed your life. Take him out to dinner, or ask him for advice that only he can give, or show him something you've been working on that you thought might interest him or make him proud. THEN ask for a recommendation. I DON'T MEAN that you should be manipulative or disingenuous just to secure a recommendation. I mean you should show GENUINE appreciation and try to develop a closer relationship with someone you respect. The recommendation is just a perk. Send him a thank you note and a small gift that you know he will appreciate. And keep in touch for the rest of your life. At the very least send him periodic updates about your new career and asking how he is doing. Make sure you choose a professor who genuinely inspired you, or else you're just a manipulative jerk. (sorry)

One interesting note: I went back for my Masters degree in music a few years ago. I was accepted to every prestigious conservatory I applied to except for one (Yale, go figure).

I found out AFTER I was accepted that one of my "recommendors" never actually sent his letters out. The application requirements specifically said 3 recommendations, but these schools only had 2 on file for me. But they all accepted me anyway.

I wouldn't recommend taking this story as an excuse to slack off or fall short of application requirements (why give them any excuse to cut you from the running?). But it goes to show that perhaps they're not all such sticklers, and perhaps 1 or 2 strong recommendations are better than 3 forced and unfamiliar ones.
posted by Alabaster at 10:08 PM on May 16, 2007

skip U Phoenix they have the top of the mind awareness in many employers minds as a diploma mill
posted by the_binary_blues at 8:57 AM on May 17, 2007

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