Updated: Nov 18, 2021
The way to get 3 references right away is to ask 6 people for references - all at once. It’s actually a good rule of thumb for getting 3 people for any purpose - ask 6 likely folks, and chances are 3 will agree. Don’t be afraid to offend potential recommenders later on when you have to turn them down. Thank them profusely, and explain that you already have sufficient letters. People will understand (and be a little relieved that they no longer have to do all that work).
How will I know if my references wrote me good enough letters of recommendation?
As if applying to grad school wasn’t frightening enough, here’s another scary thought: how do you know if your references have written you good enough letters of recommendation? This is, after all, the part of your application that you have the least control over. There are several things you can do to ensure that you receive excellent references:
1. waive access
Schools don’t take letters seriously unless access is waived. Recommenders feel constrained if they know you will be reading their letters, so suppress your curiosity and waive access.
2. help your recommenders out
This is also known as writing your own reference. As someone who’s written academic, professional and personal references, I like nothing more than when a reference is so easy to write, it seems to write itself. Give your references all of the information they need to write you an excellent letter; don’t leave it to chance and the person’s memory. Send them an email along with the recommendation information, include a draft of your application essay if you have one. If you don’t, tell them why you want to go to graduate school and what you hope to accomplish once you’re in.
For academic references, your email should remind the professor of the excellent grades you received on papers and exams, of the work you have helped them with outside of class, of the wonderful chats you may have had during their office hours, and any memorable comments (i.e. “This is really graduate level work you’ve done here...”) Give them a copy of your major course papers, with their original comments if possible.
For professional references, now is the time to dig out all of those excellent formal and informal evaluations and to remind them of accomplishments that they have complimented you on in the past. Attach summaries of projects or presentations that showcase abilities that will transfer to graduate school.
3. don’t forget the forms
Some schools require references to use the school’s online form, other schools have no form but have “suggested” questions references should address. Look at these instructions carefully and make sure each reference is able to answer positively in most of the categories. For example, if the school is asking your reference to evaluate your leadership ability as compared to other people they’ve taught, but this professor has mostly seen just your written work, remind them of other times you have taken the lead.
4. make sure they get sent in
Give your folks a deadline - tell your recommenders you need the reference a week before you actually need it, in case they turn it in late. Give them a month to write the reference and follow up a week before the deadline to see if they’ve turned it in.