Get Supportive Letters
Have you ever asked an expert or another person you trust for advice? We all want targeted information from people we trust concerning things we care about, and graduate admissions officers are no different in this desire.
The basic mechanics of getting a letter of recommendation are fairly straightforward: you ask a letter writer, they agree and write their letter, and then they confidentially submit this letter to the appropriate graduate programs of interest, usually electronically.
On this page, we break this process down to explore the important steps for success.
Find Your Letter Writers
Types of Letter Writers
When you apply to graduate programs, admissions offers want to know as much as possible about you. They learn about you through your actions, your achievements, your writing, and the writing of others whom they can trust. This is where letters of recommendation are useful, and these letters are frequently one of the most important parts of your application to graduate school.
There are likely many people in your life who would love to support your career goals and help you get into graduate school. Appropriate people to ask for a letter of recommendation include professionals who know you well, can personally attest to traits that you possess, and have observed your accomplishments related to the field you are trying to enter.
Different fields have different standards for the preferred composition of your recommendation letter writers. Some fields prefer mainly academic letters written by professors, while other fields prefer a mix of both academic and non-academic letters.
In general, the more academically-oriented the graduate field (e.g., sociology, geology, and art history), the more likely it is that the admissions committee will prefer letters from professors. The more professionally-oriented the graduate field (e.g., business, medicine, and counseling), the more likely it is that letters from professionals working in that industry will be valued. Note that there are some exceptions to this rule, such as letters of recommendation for law school, which gives preference to letters written by professors or TAs as opposed to legal professionals.
You should NEVER ask anyone related to you for a letter of recommendation. Parents, siblings, uncles, aunts, it doesn’t matter: no relatives! A letter from a relative is seen as highly biased and therefore unprofessional.
Regardless of your chosen field, you will likely need to ask for a few letters from professors at UCSB who know you well and have seen you excel in their coursework and/or research group. If you attended one or more institutions of higher education before UCSB, then professors from those institutions are also appropriate to ask, but it is best to obtain at least one letter from a UCSB professor.
In many fields, you will want a letter from a professional who has the degree you are seeking and currently practices in that field (e.g., a lawyer who practices in the field of law).
If you are pursuing a field that expects a letter of recommendation from a professional currently working in that industry, and you don’t know a person who meets this description, then this is an indicator that you may need more experience in the field before applying. Many programs are geared this way intentionally; a letter of recommendation requirement is simply an efficient way for graduate programs to assure that this extracurricular experience has been obtained before you advance into further studies.
Other professionals in the field who may write you a letter for graduate school could include: a postdoctoral fellow whom you have worked directly under in a research setting, a staff or faculty member who has advised you during a position of leadership you have held for a student organization, or a supervisor you have worked with during an internship or relevant work experience. This is not an exhaustive list, so be sure to stay attuned to additional professionals who could support you through a letter.
Can’t Find the Right Writer?
If you are feeling like you don’t know many people who could write you strong letters of recommendation, then it is time to invest in professional relationships through intention and hard work. This may include applying for an internship, embarking on a research project with a professor, taking an extra class that interests you and going to office hours with the professor, or getting involved in extracurriculars such as volunteer roles in the community and leadership roles in campus organizations.
In all cases, strong letters of recommendation are based on relationships, and relationships take time to develop. Good letters of recommendation do not happen overnight; they are instead fostered well before anything is ever written.
It is not usually easy, but with persistence and concerted relationship building, you can increase your chances of obtaining strong letters of recommendation.