References and recommendations are an invaluable tool for admissions committees and can enhance your application strength if done well. If you take one thing away from this post, let it be: brief the reference providers about the unique nature of each program you are applying to, and ask that they consider that context when writing a reference for you.
The number one mistake I see on references, year after year, is that students get bland, one size fits all references that are suitable for application to several different schools. This happens because the applicant doesn’t want to inconvenience the reference provider, but it ends up hurting the applicant’s competitiveness. Most graduate and professional degree programs have some unique feature that makes them different from other programs, and they hope the student benefits from these characteristics.
Students can potentially get stronger reference letters by providing this insight to the reference provider (in writing) so they can tailor their remarks to highlight what in the candidate’s background makes them a great fit for the particular program being considered. Obviously, undifferentiated, generic references miss out on this opportunity and leave the candidate with something less than the best possible reference.
Here is a simple checklist that will help you prepare a document your reference providers can use to tailor their remarks to each program you are applying to. For each school or program, provide answers to the following questions:
- What school and program are you applying to?
- What is your career goal?
- How will attending this school help you achieve that career goal?
- What is the most important feature, component, or faculty member that will influence your success – be specific with this one.
- What is the most important qualification in your application according to what you think the school values?
In all of the school specific questions above, you really need to concentrate to provide different answers for each school. Admissions committees really appreciate when a reference is really written for their program and not just generic statements of support.
Remember, no one ever asks for a bad reference. The are always good, but only the great ones stand out.