Going back to school is a great idea for bettering yourself and growing as a person, but it’s not without its obstacles. Many schools and programs require a letter of recommendation or two from a former teacher or professor.
Trouble is, since you’ve been out of school all this time, even your most recent educators don’t remember you, don’t know what you’re currently doing, or they’ve retired.
The schools you’re applying to want to know who you are now, but they also want to hear it from someone in academia, and you don’t have anybody who fits. Who do you turn to now?
Let’s say this might be an annoying problem to be in now, but figuring out how to handle it might be a great experience to prepare you for returning to school. It turns out, all you have to do is get a little creative.
If you haven’t been in school for a while, you’ve probably been in the workforce. You can use someone from your professional life as a recommender. Such a person would be someone you worked closely with, but still had seniority over you and can use their authority to qualify as a recommendation.
If you were applying for a new job, who would be at the very top of your reference list? That person would probably be your best bet for requesting a letter of recommendation.
Most graduate programs understand prospective students who have been out of school for a while won’t have any recent contacts in academia. But while some are compassionate, others don’t care.
If you do some research on the program you’re applying to and discover it almost always disregards non-academic references, it might be tempting to write the program off completely. But your other option is to play the game anyway and play it well.
Haven’t been in school for years? Ask your old professors anyway. It can’t hurt.
There’s a method of going about this. You don’t just contact them out of the blue for the first time in years and ask them to draw up a very important document for you.
When you contact them, introduce yourself as if you’re corresponding for the first time, and then refresh their memory about who you are. Tell them which of their class(es) you took, what grades you received, what you enjoyed about the course(s) and what you learned. If you chose the right professor, they’ll remember you.
Make a point to mention you’re seeking recommenders, but don’t be too forward about it. Play coy by not popping the question until you get a response.
When you do reach out to your old professors, one thing you must do is update them on your current whereabouts. Let them know what you’ve been up to since you last saw them, what you’ve accomplished and what you want to accomplish.
This will be important for when they actually write the letter because educational programs will want to have a good idea of who you are and not just who you were – more on that later.
If you already are in regular contact with an old professor, then you’ve saved yourself a lot of work in this end. But you’re still going to want to make sure they know as much about you now as would anybody in your professional life.
Classmates and Alumni
This one is trickier to pull off, but if you play your cards right, you can make it work. You can try to get a rec letter from someone who’s more of a colleague than an elder or a superior.
But such a person would have to know their stuff, and (within reason) they would have to know your stuff.
One option is to contact a former classmate who was well-accomplished in school and is even more accomplished now.
This person may have been your friend as opposed to a passing acquaintance, but for best results, it should be someone who was more of a work partner than just an old buddy.
Think of someone with whom you did important and tangible work, like some sort of project, be it inside or outside of class. You can frame this as a recommendation from someone who’s seen your work ethic firsthand.
The other avenue is significantly riskier, but people have pulled it off: the new-old-fashioned method of LinkedIn networking.
Find an alumnus of the program or school you’re applying for, strike up a polite conversation, warm up to one another and very gently ease your way into their comfort zone. When you feel like you two have a good grasp on one another, ask them if they would be so kind as to write you a letter of recommendation.
Does that all sound vaguely invasive and borderline manipulative?
Probably, but it doesn’t have to play out that way if you do it right – that is to say, keep in contact with them after the letter is written, and treat this person who was once a stranger as you would any other professional contact.
Besides, when you’re in a school or a program they know well, you may want to call on them again if you think they might be able to provide some insider information.
Someone Who’s an Expert – On You
No matter who you wind up asking for a letter of recommendation, they should not only know you, but know who you are. Letters of recommendation are not only to sign praises of how great you are, but to paint a complete picture of you.
If you’re calling upon a boss or supervisor to write your letter, make sure it’s someone you have a healthy rapport with and deal with frequently. If you’re tapping an old professor for the job, make sure it’s one whose class you actively participated in and one who will surely remember you out of all the pupils they’ve had.
No matter how close or distant your recommender may be, give them a list of recent accomplishments and outline what your goals are in school and beyond.
You’re going to want to find someone with whom you’re on good terms and who would want to help you, where they’d be willing to take new information they didn’t necessarily know about you and synthesize it into a flattering portrayal.
Throughout it all, be sure to be polite. The rules here are the same for students going directly from undergrad to graduate school.
Give them ample time to write the letter – it’s often said the bare minimum of common courtesy is asking them at least three weeks before the letter is due, but most would say give them five or six weeks, if not several months.
Also, give them extremely detailed instructions on how to submit the letter, such as a specific email address or URL if it’s to be submitted online; if it’s to be sent in the mail, you’d best provide the postage stamp and the envelope (and you might as well put the mailing address on it while you’re at it).
This is a big favor you’re asking of them, so you’re going to want to make it as effortless for them as possible.
After all this, the truth is your letter of recommendation still doesn’t make you a shoo-in for a given school or program. It could very well succeed or it could very well not.
If all else fails, you do have the option to take college classes as a non-matriculated student, which is to say you’re taking the class as a one-off and you’re not going for a degree. Then, you can enroll for the full degree program later, at which point you can get a letter of recommendation from one of your new professors.
But the enormous catch with this is, not only will you likely be limited in the number and variety of classes you can take, but you will most assuredly be paying full-price for them, since non-enrolled students aren’t eligible for financial aid.
It’s not a great option, but it’s still an option that may be better than nothing.
Whomever you wind up getting that letter of recommendation from, make a point to keep in contact with them, not just because you might need them again, and not just because you might owe them one for writing that letter, but because maintaining professional and academic relationships is a good habit.
Others might say if you didn’t already have the mind to keep connections in your back pocket just for a situation like this, then you don’t deserve to go back to school. We say you ought to prove to those nay-sayers that it’s never too late to learn.