For some people, getting recommendations can be the most intimidating part of the graduate school application process. This doesn't need to be the case, and with a few simple pointers, you can maximize the impact of your recommendations.
Pointer #1: Start early
As with most parts of the graduate school application, starting early can only help you. The people you ask for recommendations are very busy and your letter is not going to be their number one priority (shocking, we know). You therefore want to be courteous and allow them plenty of time.
Pointer #2: Don't blindside people
If you are still in school and know your professors really well (which is an excellent idea by the way), you may just be able to walk into their offices with your recommendation forms and they will be happy and delighted to see you. However, if you do not know your professors quite as well or you have been out of school for a long time, make sure to give them a chance to remember you.
Probably the best way to approach professors is to mail them a letter asking for a recommendation, reminding the professor of the class(es) you took with them and the grade(s) you received, providing a brief résumé (more on that in a moment), and then saying you will call them to discuss their willingness to provide you with a recommendation. The other method is to call them first, briefly introduce yourself, and tell them you will be mailing them all of the information just described. The point in either case is to provide them with the information they need to write a recommendation and give them an opportunity to remember you and decide if they would like to help you. You could create an embarrassing situation for you and them if you walk into their office out of the blue and expect instant recognition and willing assistance.
Pointer #3: Talk
After you have provided a professor with all of the information discussed above, make sure to call or meet with that person. Ask if she feels comfortable in recommending you. If you receive a mixed or questionable response, you may want to tell the professor you will send the forms later. You can then politely call or write and say that you do not need a recommendation after all. This will likely be as much of a relief to the professor as it is to you.
Pointer #4: Provide a résumé and letter
Whether you know your professors well or not, providing a résumé will allow them to write the best possible recommendation for you. The brief résumé should include your best qualifications, whether that be classes, internships, work experience, personal interest in the field, awards earned, or anything else that will allow the recommender to provide concrete details to your prospective graduate school. You may also want to include a copy of your grades if they are good.
Along with the résumé, provide a letter that details why you are pursuing a graduate school education. Provide information on the programs to which you are applying as well as your long-term goals after you have graduated. This allows the professors to match what they say in their letter to what you have said in the rest of your application, which can help create a positive impression for the committee considering your application.
Some professors will ask you to write a sample recommendation letter. If asked, do it! The professor may well use your letter as a draft or even put the letter you wrote on stationery and send it as is. This makes life easy for the professor and provides you with an unparalleled opportunity for a good recommendation that highlights your strengths and complements the rest of your application.
Pointer #5: Take advantage of your college
Typically the placement office or career services department at your college or university will happily keep recommendations on file for you and send them out when requested to various graduate schools and programs. If you are applying to many schools this cuts down on hassle for you as well as for those people you request recommendations from. This allows professors to write one carefully constructed letter rather than trying to mess with multiple forms and creating different versions for different schools.
If for some reason this is not an option, still make life as easy as possible for your professors. When you send them the recommendation forms, make sure to include addressed, stamped envelopes so that they can send the recommendations quickly and easily to the appropriate places. Some programs require you to use certain forms. If this is the case, fill out as much of the form as possible before sending it to the placement office or professors. Clip the stamped envelopes to the correct forms to make life as easy as possible.
If you have been out of school for a while, the recommendation process may seem even more intimidating. However, following the steps described above can yield excellent recommendations even if it's been a while since you were in class with your professors. Just make sure to emphasize what you've been doing since you graduated that has prepared you to pursue an advanced degree. You can also ask for a recommendation from an employer, in which case you should follow the same steps as you would with a former professor. Employers can communicate a great deal about your work ethic, or potentially about your passion for a particular field. However, some academics are not impressed by job experience and will still want to see positive recommendations from faculty.
The thing to remember when asking for recommendations is that the professors were once in your place. Most of them will want to provide you with a positive recommendation and help you to gain entry into graduate school. The key is simply to provide them with the tools that they need in order to do that. A letter explaining your situation and a brief résumé can make the vital difference between a mediocre recommendation that does not help and possibly even hurts your chances and an excellent recommendation that improves your application and impresses that committee.