As I sit here staring at the stack of letters I need to write for my students, I thought I might make a few notes about this altogether fun aspect of the application process. Especially a few things you might want to avoid, so your letter writers aren't silently cursing your name while they try to come up with things to say about you to your dream school :)
So, the first question you might be asking yourself about this, is who the heck am I even going to ask? Well, if no names are coming to you right off the bat, you might be in a bit of a sticky situation. This is where getting to know the people who teach your classes comes into play. And by "getting to know" I mean, attending office hours occasionally to ask informed questions, being an attentive classroom participant, and overall not being the student your TA/Professor wants to hide under their desk from. If you're in your senior year, you hopefully have a few people who know you by name and you've managed to develop a little report with. If not, well, there's a reason professors hold office hours. Go! Talk! Ask nice questions and don't make a nuisance of yourself :)
The best people to get to know are those that are in your field of study (which hopefully in some way corresponds with what you are planning on doing in your graduate career), and who have had experience working with you in the classroom--and even better, outside of the classroom in a research setting. Yeah, I know, not all fields allow for this kind of thing, but hopefully you've managed some kind of internship or job where you can ask someone to recommend you. If you've been out of school for a good long time and no longer have contact with the people who were your professors, that does make things more difficult. In that case a boss, a co-worker, or maybe even a peer who is now working in your field of choice might be a good avenue to take. It's hard, I know, but a little brainstorming might prove that there are more people out there than you might expect.
As for how to ask itself, my best advice is to not wait until the last minute. Seriously. Nothing frosts my cookies more than a student who thinks I am not doing anything right now ("it's summer, right?") and have a spare couple of hours to write a letter. Now, I know sometimes emergencies come up and other people can flake out, but asking as early as possible is great, and makes you look prepared and on the ball.
Other things to do when you've got your references all lined up is to put together a little packet of all the information they're going to need for writing a letter for you. This can include:
-your CV or resume
-your personal statement
-a complete list of the schools you're applying to
-a complete list of what these schools are going to ask for
-envelopes (with postage!) to those schools who still want paper
-Deadlines for each of the schools
I hate having to wonder where and when I have to send stuff, so keep it concise and clear; that will help your letter writer out loads. Sending a thank you note (especially on paper) is the perfect way to express your thanks once the letters have been submitted (though doing so before they are in can look like you're trying to suck up). Also, do tell the person who wrote your letters what came of them--I want to know if you got in if I took the time to write something up for you.
Soo, questions? Anything I'm forgetting? General comments? I'm all ears!!
Been there, done that.
After six years of grad school, there are a few things I've picked up from personal experience and a whole lot of time talking with other female grad students (AKA procrastinating). I've always wished there had been some kind of handbook about how to handle the whole world of graduate school, so I figured I'd start a friendly place to discuss what it's like to be female in grad school, and maybe pass on some wisdom too!