Gotta Get Into Grad School Part II: References and Recommendations

This post is the second in my series on getting into occupational therapy graduate school. Part I can be found here.

...this is the kind of situation this post will hopefully help you avoid.
…this is the kind of situation this post will hopefully help you avoid.

One of the most crucial parts of any academic or employment application is the letter of recommendation you receive from your previous instructor, supervisor or employer.

Aside from not having a compelling essay or competitive grades, having a poor letter of recommendation is one of the worst things that can happen to your OT school application. Schools are meeting you as almost a complete stranger, with only the word of others to go on – and if those words are telling them to run away, they’d be crazy not to! In this post, I’m going to include some tips for how to choose a recommender, request a recommendation and manage recommendations across multiple graduate school applications.

Choosing a Recommender

A common question I see on forums like the OTD discussion forum on is “Who should I get to write my recommendation?” There’s really no completely right or wrong answer to this question, but you should take into consideration several things as you prepare to ask for a recommendation:

  • Length of relationship. I would suggest that you ask for recommendations from people you have worked with for one month or longer. Any shorter than this, and you risk not having enough of a relationship for the writer to give you a strong recommendation.
  • Dynamic of relationship. Of course it might look great for you to have a recommendation from the hospital’s Occupational Therapy or Rehab Department director or your school’s “Health Sciences” program director but if this person doesn’t know you very well your recommendation probably won’t be very good. Only ask a person who knows you and who you know well.
  • Recommender’s relationship with the program. If you can get a recommendation from a program alum, that’s amazing! Of course, make sure it’s a positive, insightful recommendation, but having somebody who successfully attended the program you are interested in applying to vouching for you can definitely be a boost. An alum’s recommendation isn’t everything, but it may help you get your foot in the door.
  • Make sure the person you ask is a person they want a recommendation from. Read applications and websites very carefully to make sure that you have the right combination of recommenders. For example, some schools require that two recommenders be OT’s, and leave the third person to your discretion. However, others are less picky and simply give basic guidelines for how you should choose your recommender. Make sure you know – and keep organized – which schools want recommendations from which people!
  • Go for quality over quantity. Although some applications allow you to upload four or five recommendations, don’t abuse this option! Having three well-written, positive recommendations from people you know well is better than having two great ones, one from a professor you had two years ago and two from church leaders who don’t know you from Adam. Of course, feel free to submit as many recommendations as you feel would be helpful to your application, but just know that having three or four glowing recommendations is about all you will need!

No matter who you choose to write your recommendation, make sure this person knows you and can speak to the amazing qualities that would make you a great graduate student and OT practitioner! Remember, a big name won’t make up for a bad recommendation.


  • Get your stuff together BEFORE asking. Put yourself in your potential recommenders’ shoes – Would you want to keep getting biweekly emails begging for another recommendation for a new school with new requirements for an entire semester? Probably not. To avoid this – and increase your chances of getting a quality recommendation – you should do your research on the schools you are applying to and make a list of their recommendation requirements EARLY and THOROUGHLY to streamline the process for your recommender.

    It’s fine to ask for recommendations to a couple extra schools if something changes – and make sure you briefly explain these changes to your recommender – but tossing recommendations at a person willy-nilly for months is bound to be irritating and likely to negatively impact their perception of you as an organized, responsible person, which could possibly lower the quality of the recommendations you receive.

  • Make things easy on your recommender when you do ask.
    • Organize recommendation materials in a Word document or Excel table for the ease and sanity of your recommender. Or print a checklist out. Either way, give something to your reviewer that he or she can check on quickly and easily to get the pertinent information. I printed out and delivered (or mailed) a hard copy checklist of all the required materials, websites and deadlines to my recommenders months before anything was due.
    • Provide specific due dates and “requested by” dates for each program or application. If your applications are all due within a similar time frame, it may be easier to just include one “blanket” date for your recommender to write down or recall.
    • Give your recommender information about you to help them write. Include your resume, a list of your accomplishments, and a brief anecdote about a time when their guidance helped you learn or when you performed well in their class (or on their team at work, etc.) with your request. Having a person connect the dots is MUCH easier than having him fill in the blanks! And it will probably make you look much better when they have a list of concrete examples about your awesomeness to draw on. J
  • Organize your recommendations for separate applications.
    • Make a Word document or spreadsheet with columns for various deadlines and due dates, recommender names, schools/programs and information about the recommendation requirements (a written letter, a paper form, an online form) to help keep your applications organized. Or buy a large dry erase board and post it somewhere noticeable so you can change information and make notes quickly and easily. Staying organized is the key to being successful throughout the whole maddening application process!

I’ve attached a sample “Recommender Checklist” document to this post, for anyone who is wondering how they can help recommenders stay organized and complete the necessary tasks. Check it out: Sample Recommender Checklist.
Waiting to Exhale

  • Give the person enough time to write about you! Give your materials to your recommender at least one month – but preferably 1.5 or 2 months – before the deadline to complete it. If you have to physically mail or submit a recommendation, add two weeks to the one month recommendation.
    • CAUTION: Asking for a recommendation a week or two before a deadline is a recipe for a weak, unconvincing recommendation at best and NO recommendation at worst.
  • Give reminders early and as appropriate. Your recommenders are surely busy people who are working and possibly writing other recommendations for other people. Send a polite reminder two weeks after your initial request, and then contact him or her again at least two weeks before the deadline (or three weeks if you have to mail anything!)
  • SEND THANK YOU NOTES IMMEDIATELY. I cannot stress this enough – send a HANDWRITTEN thank you note to your recommenders once they have completed your recommendation. Make it sincere, thank them for their time and guidance and follow up later (as appropriate) with a phone call, email or interaction to let them know what ultimately ended up happening or which school you end up attending.

I hope these tips will be helpful to anyone who is going through the OT school admissions process, and I welcome commentary, questions and other suggestions about references, recommendations and organizing applications!

Who did you ask to be your recommender for an important academic or employment application? Why did you ask this person?

5 thoughts on “Gotta Get Into Grad School Part II: References and Recommendations

  1. Phoebe April 19, 2017 / 6:26 pm

    Thank you for putting this blog together. It has been ever so helpful in taming my nerves about applying to OT school. How long would you say it took you to gather the courage to ask for a letter of recommendation? I’ve been dragging my feet on this for months to find the opportune time to ask.

    • lej1123 April 20, 2017 / 11:26 am

      Thanks for reading! Asking for a letter of recommendation can be pretty daunting, but if you have a good relationship with your potential letter writer, you should have nothing to worry about! When I was applying, I quickly mustered the courage to ask my letter writers because I had deadlines to meet and I knew that if they declined I would need time to find other people. It’s also important to ask early because people with frequent or multiple observers may have others planning to ask them for letters, and you’ll want to be first in line. Set a hard deadline for yourself (like within a week), draft your emails or practice your ask, and go for it! The worst they can say is no, and then you can go from there knowing you had the courage to do it once and you can do it again. Hope this helps, and best of luck getting those recommendations!

  2. Colleen June 5, 2019 / 9:52 pm

    Hi, I am not sure if you can provide any guidance on this, but I asked an OT I have shadowed for several months to write my recommendation letter. He agreed but asked me to send him a guideline of what he should include in the letter. I am having such a hard time finding any information on this anywhere! I was going to ask him to include how long I shadowed with him, some information about the clinic I shadowed him in, along with some of my skills he saw me perform while shadowing. Any other suggestions of things I should ask him to include? Thank you!

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