Guest Post: How to Get Recommendation Letters for Grad School

Last week we offered a post on the vexed irycebaronissue of getting recommendation letters for jobs. Recommendation letters for grad school are a little less complicated: YES, you’ll need them and YES, you should ask your professors for them. But who should you ask? How? When? What steps can you take to make sure your letters reflect your strengths?

Iryce Baron kindly took some time out from prepping her fall courses on the Literature of Fantasy and British Feminist Fiction to write down some advice for students seeking recommendations. 


by Iryce Baron

It happens when I least expect it. The semester is rapidly coming to a close and I’m woefully behind on my work. My office is crammed full of students every day, I’m up to my ears in grading, I’m staying up till 2 a.m. prepping for classes while living on Cheetos and Coke Zero and I haven’t even written the final exam yet. Suddenly I get a notice that I have new email and there’s a note from a former student I haven’t heard from in ages or a student who rarely talks in class. It means only one thing—said student needs a recommendation and I can only hope that it wasn’t due the day before yesterday.

It’s part of our job as academics to write recommendations. It can be a really formative experience between faculty and students or it can be an exercise in frustration for everyone. If you’re planning on attending graduate school or going to law school here’s what you can to do to maximize the experience for yourself and your instructor.

It’s always best to give your professor a heads up with at least a month’s notice. 

Sure we’ve all produced recommendations at the eleventh hour—sometimes it’s unavoidable—a student decides to apply to a program at the last minute and we do our best to help them out, another faculty member gets sick and can’t deliver. But to optimize your chances of getting the most thorough and positive evaluation of your work, ask in advance.Some students give far more time than one month and that can be problematic as well because that means faculty can forget when it’s due with other work always looming over their heads. If you send in your request very early, make sure you also send follow-ups.

If you’re going to ask your professor for a recommendation, try to meet with them at least once during office hours and clearly establish what your academic goals are.

Whether you’re going to graduate school in an area of literary studies that syncs up neatly with your professor’s interests or you’re changing directions and applying to a program in physical therapy, let them know precisely what your educational and professional aspirations are. You want to be a human rights lawyer or work with a large firm doing corporate law—that’s fine too. Just share any relevant information so they can focus on your strengths and personalize the letter.

If at all possible, ask faculty members for letters who know you well and know your work well.  

Graduate and professional programs often require three academic references. If you think you’d like a letter from a faculty member try to be vocal in class and try to meet with them outside of class so that they can get to know you better.Be prepared to share papers that you handed in for the course. The most effective recommendations contain direct references to the work students produced in class.

Try to request letters from faculty members whose classes you’ve done especially well in. 

You might have loved your class on theory or you might have a had a professor who is a superstar, but if you didn’t get an A in the course, it’s preferable to forgo that person and to approach someone who can be as enthusiastic about your work as possible.If you’re a late bloomer though, don’t be discouraged. We’ve all written letters for students who are just beginning to show promise. It’s okay to ask someone for a letter who gave you B. Just try to gauge how supportive the instructor can be about your work. I always encourage students who didn’t receive an A in my course to see if anyone else is available, but if not, I focus only on the positive elements of their work.

And don’t forget these two things because they’re really important.

  1. Almost any program that you apply to will ask if you are willing to waive your right to access your letters of reference.  It is imperative that you do this. I once had a student who initially did not waive her rights to access her letters and I told her she needed to throw out all her paperwork and begin anew. Her response, “If this is what they want, then why do even give you an option?” In an age of social media when everyone seemingly has access to anything you post online, it seems a particularly dated request. My answer was, it’s the academic equivalent of a trick question and you must do it. She just finished her PhD at Harvard and I know I gave her the right advice.
  2. Make sure that whether you send faculty emails with links that store your references for future use or that go directly to the universities you’re applying to, you clarify when the letter is due and that you provide the correct materials to be filled out and include pre-addressed envelopes that are stamped if you prefer hard copies.

And finally, let your referees know which schools you got admitted to and where you’ve decided to go and send a letter of thanks. It’s very much appreciated.

Campus Career Fairs, 2016-17

Save the dates! The fairs in boldface are of particular interest for English department majors, but all of these fairs are open to all majors.

Campus Career Fairs for 2016-2017 Academic Year

Fall Semester:

Engineering Career Fair – September 7 & 8, 2016
Business Career Fair – September 14 & 15, 2016
Engineering Employment EXPO—September 19 & 20, 2016
FOCUS: The Job Fair for Career-Focused, Paid, Campus Work—September 21, 2016
ACES & Sciences Career Fair—October 6, 2016
LAS in CU: LAS Local Internship Fair—October 19, 2016
Graduate & Professional School Fair—October 19, 2016
International Career Forum—October 21, 2016
Fall Illini Career & Internship Fair—October 26, 2016

Spring Semester:

Business Career Fair—February 1 & 2, 2017
Arts and Culture Career Fair (held in Chicago for UIUC and UIC students)—February 3, 2017
Engineering Career Fair—February 7 & 8, 2017
Start Up Career Fair—February 9, 2017
Educators’ Fair—March 6, 2017 at EIU
Illini Career and Internship Fair—April 5, 2017
Research Park Career Fair—spring 2017


The U of I English/CW Major’s Bucket List

Here are some things every English/CW major should do before graduation. To paraphrase Ferris Bueller, “Four years moves pretty fast.  If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”

  1. Take part in a tea ceremony at Japan House.Krannert Center for the Performing Arts (KCPA) Foellinger Great Hall
  2. Attempt something you’re not sure you can do.
  3. Experience a performance in each of the five indoor performance spaces at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts. Student tickets are never more than $10.
  4. Get a bite to eat at one of the many food trucks on campus.UI President Dr. Hogan & Mrs. Hogan
  5. View an exhibit at the Krannert Art Museum and in the Illini Union Art Gallery.
  6. Be part of the public life of the university by doing something on the Quad outside of Quad Day–a rally, a bake sale, a fundraiser, an informational table.
  7. Attend a live theater event–if not at Krannert, then at the Station Theater in Urbana, or a performance by one of our student groups like the What You Will Shakespeare Company or the Penny Dreadful Players.pennydreadfulplayers
  8. Go to an off-campus cultural festival (Pygmalion, Ebertfest, Boneyard Arts). Festival passes too expensive? They often need volunteers.boneyard arts
  9. Attend a live performance of a style of music you didn’t know existed before you came here.
  10. Make use of the Urbana Free Library or the Champaign Public Library. Both offer quiet study spaces, an escape from campus, performances and talks, and of course, books (particularly books that are unavailable in the university library system or bookstore or books that you just want to read for, you know, fun).
  11. See a movie in a language that you don’t know (and preferably one that’s not French, German, Japanese, Italian, or Spanish).  There are lots of film series and screenings around campus to make this one easy!
  12. Cheer on the Illini at a college sports event. Not a college basketball/football fan? Check out a baseball or volleyball game or a club sport.
  13. Go to a live poetry or fiction reading.
  14. Put in an appearance at the office hours of EVERY professor you have, at least once. Seriously.
  15. ebertfestTake in ANY movie at the glorious Virginia Theater in downtown Champaign or a good movie at the Art Theater. Note that, either way, your concessions help to fund an independent, non-profit endeavor, so think of that large buttered popcorn as a charitable donation.
  16. “I had the feeling that the world was left behind, that we had got over the edge of it, and were outside man’s jurisdiction. I had never before looked up at the sky when there was not a familiar mountain ridge against it. But this was the complete dome of heaven, all there was of it….If we never arrived anywhere, it did not matter. Between that earth and that sky I felt erased, blotted ouprairie skyt. I did not say my prayers that night: here, I felt, what would be would be.” That’s from Willa Cather’s My Antonia. Think “buildings,” not “familiar mountain ridge,” and get far enough out in the country to know what her narrator is talking about.
  17. Take a course on some off-the-wall subject that you knew NOTHING about beforehand.
  18. Write a letter to the editor of the Daily Illini, The Chicago Tribune, The New York Times, or your hometown paper, on an issue that mattersAllerton_Summer_2013-117-1-686x456 to you
  19. Become friends with someone that you didn’t think you’d like.
  20. Go to an event at Allerton Park — or just spend an afternoon there.
  21. Put in a request for an early edition of your favorite work of classic literature in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library collection. You’ll get the four-star library experience as it’s brought to you in the glass reading room on a foam cushion with lead weights. The rules may look daunting, but keep in mind that they’re there to keep the books IN, not to keep students OUT.Gov. Pat Quinn listens to Edward Washington, freshman in political science, at the MAP rally on the Quad, Wednesday, October 7, 2009. Edward was one of several UI and Parkland College students who spoke in favor of the MAP grants.
  22. Develop a taste for a food you didn’t know existed before you came here.
  23. Change your mind about something important.
  24. Apply your English/CW skills to something nonacademic. Your job, your RSO, your volunteer activities, your personal relationships are all places you can use your gift for close reading, writing, analyzing a problem from different angles, giving/getting feedback, making a persuasive argument.observatory
  25. Read a book that’s not on the syllabus
  26. Look at the night sky through the telescope in the U of Illinois Observatory.
  27. Have tea with the ESC!
  28. Brush up your resume, do a little research, and then talk to a recruiter at a campus career fair. The more you go to these events, the easier and more fruitful they get, and there are many to choose from!
  29. mainstacksSpend some time in the stacks at the Main Library (yes, they’re open to undergraduates). Challenge completed when you’ve shifted five banks of movable shelving to get to the book you’re looking for.
  30. Attend a public lecture, reading, or panel discussion by one of your professors.

English/CW + [skills]

liberal-arts-skills_683x512This picture condenses a study from 2013, which you can read in its entirety here.

The study was put together by Burning Glass Technologies to advance their own agenda of selling big-data technology that will help people find jobs. But one doesn’t have to purchase their products or services to participate the takeaway here: that supplementing a liberal arts degree (like English or Creative Writing) with additional skills can make it easier to find a good job.

Courses (not to mention certificate programs, minors, and majors) are available in some of these areas, but employers are generally more impressed with achievements than paper credentials.

Your liberal arts major gives you experience in coming at problems from many different angles, finding creative solutions, learning fast, and working effectively with others. Those abilities can also help you use the resources around you to build the skills employers are looking for.

Programs like Illinois in Washington and Illinois Business Consulting can set you up with direct experience in using these skills, but there are many other options. Your part-time job, RSO leadership, campus or summer internship, blog, or volunteer service all offer opportunities to practice skills in marketing, social media, graphic design, data management, and business.