This will be the first post of a three-part series. In each, I will write about different segments of the application process: recommendations, personal statements, and the resume/pertinent social work experience. Please keep in mind that the following is based solely on my experience. Should you have any questions, please make sure to clarify with UCLA faculty.
Part I: Recommendations
Securing three solid recommendations is certainly no easy task. In my opinion, taking the time to strategize will not only make the process easier, but will also increase the probability that your recommendations will capture the type of person you want the admissions committee to see.
Before you ask for recommendations, consider the following:
- Stellar Recommendations Are a Must: This might be common sense, but acquiring exceptional recommendations are critical to your success. DO NOT ask professors, colleagues, bosses, etc. who will only give you a so-so recommendation. For example, obtaining a recommendation from a professor in a class in which you received an A is simply not enough. The professor must really know you, and be able to speak to your strengths. Don’t have three exemplary recommenders? I advise you to postpone the application process. Take the time to formulate relationships with individuals who have seen you do great work.
- Diversify your Recommenders: Again this might seem obvious, but I urge you to diversify who you choose as your recommenders. While it might seem advantageous to obtain all your recommendations from previous professors, the admissions committee is looking to read different perspectives from a variety of individuals.
- Diversify the Content: Similar to the above point, the content within your recommendations should vary. Each recommendation should highlight different aspects of yourself that you want the admissions committee to know. For example, a professor could speak to your research abilities while a non-profit executive could elaborate on your compassion for others.
- Select Recommenders with Authority: The more authority and experience your recommender has, the better. Think about it. How much more impressive does it look to have a director of an agency write you a recommendation, compared to a program evaluator? When selecting a potential recommender, at a minimum, the person should have one level of superiority above you. However, this does not mean you should always select a recommender simply because of their title. It is more important that the recommender write you a quality recommendation.
- Never Mix Personal With Business: Never ask anyone who knows you on a personal level, even if you think this person could speak to your strengths. This rule is clearly stated in the application, but desperate students always try to get away with it.
- Give the Admissions Committee More: Because most MSW programs ask for a minimum of three recommendations, most prospective applicants only send three recommendations. Unless the admissions committee prohibits you to do so, I advise you to send an extra “letter of support” or additional recommendation to bolster your application. For example, I asked a UCLA MSW/PhD graduate whom I met during a volunteer experience to write me an informal letter to support my application. I felt this greatly enhanced my submission, primarily because I had a “stamp of approval” from a former student of the program.
- Ask Politely: People are busy. When you ask someone to write you a recommendation, it is, in my opinion, a huge inconvenience. Therefore, it is critical that you ask kindly. Jodi Glickman writes an excellent series on How to Ask for a Reference Letter. She gives a great example of how to be courteous when doing so.
- Make it Hard to Say No: It should be easy for your recommenders to write you a recommendation. It is in your best interest to provide this person with your resume, transcript, examples of your work (i.e. papers, assignments, contributions), in addition to your admissions essays so they can reflect your abilities in their submission. In rare cases, recommenders will request a draft. If this occurs, limit this to just bullet points so the recommender can fill in the bulk of the content.
- Request a Meeting: MSW programs are unique in that students must have a certain skill-set that not all undergraduates possess, empathy and self-awareness are two that come to mind. Hold a meeting with your recommender to guarantee that he/she speaks to your social work skills.
- Always Say Thank You: At a minimum, you should always say thank you for their time. In my opinion, sending a short email isn't enough. A phone call, an hand-written letter, or purchasing a small gift is much more thoughtful.