Things I learned about recommending students for graduate and professional school
Ways to truly support students’ path forward
A professor in my MA program in International & Comparative Education at the American University in Cairo (2013 to 2015) used to remind us that we should reflect upon the basic ‘reason for education’ when trying to figure out how to improve it.
Over 30 years of university-level teaching, one of my ‘raison d'éducation’ became helping students in ways that genuinely served their needs, be it their academic /cognitive development (Piaget, 2001), or their social-emotional development (Erikson, 1963).
The most important tool I discovered was being truthful, which evolved into my platform of support, respect, and honesty for students - the purpose of which was to guide them toward an authentic understanding of their own capabilities.
Recommending students for graduate and professional school
During my tenure as an educator, my students wanted recommendations for graduate or professional school more and more. I was lucky to have some exceptional students, who I joyfully supported with letters of recommendation, which helped get them into world-class programs.
Regarding the recommendation process, I made it clear to students that I wanted nothing from them, except to send them off to a good future—but counseled that this might not be true of some professors whom they ask for support. My goal was to get students to understand the importance of building ethical relationships with powerful people (Schwartz 2012).
As far as the actual letters of recommendation were concerned, I learn to always include what I felt a given student’s challenges might be, also sharing this area of concern with the candidate. In contrast, many in the academic community, unfortunately, want to write glowing letters of recommendation, which many admissions committee members, quite frankly, find implausible—especially in the age of grade inflation (Chowdhury, 2018).
Another part of my strategy for letters of recommendation was to imagine what might positively influence an admissions officer, and I advised my students to likewise put themselves in the shoes of those who would be reviewing their applications. I counseled students to see interview committees as human beings who are often called upon to evaluate applicants in the midst of very busy schedules. From that perspective, I might pose this question to candidates: ‘If you, as an admissions officer, have little time to consider each program applicant, what things would you want to see in letters of recommendation and interviews?’
Often what came out of such forthright discussions about the expectations of admissions boards were answers like: a) applicants who are honest and prepared, and b) letters that paint a realistic picture. This guidance process is surprisingly informative for many candidates, because too often it is assumed that ‘everyone knows’ such basic information, so it never comes up.
What makes bright applicants stand out above the rest in an interview?
Applicants who have competitive academic credentials often don’t understand that virtually everyone who is contending for high-profile professional or graduate school slots is also very accomplished. Frequently, superstar students are used to being a ‘big fish in a little pond’, who no one can see failing. If I support candidates, I share this perspective with them, so we can work together to make them stand out above the rest during the interview process. I advise applicants that only way they can ‘fail’ is if they don’t do their best or don’t learn from setbacks. Treating exceptional candidates as normal people who need guidance is a very powerful tool to build self-awareness and self-determination.
I have had gifted students cry because I was the only person who had ever forced them to talk about themselves in an honest way. Once we got their ‘weaknesses’ out on the table, these students could participate the process in a more realistic way, rather than as the fantasy that their ‘supporters’ had wanted them to see.
It is especially important to encourage candidates to see the gap between the skills they desire and the skills they actually possess (Morgan, Tops, & van Weert, 2014). On the other hand, it is also common for candidates to under-estimate or ignore valuable skills and perspectives that they have developed through sports, hobbies, volunteer work, and a variety of ordinary life experiences—especially if they were able to overcome missteps and failures in the process.
Making the best of the interview
Once applicants have accurately assessed their skill set, standing out amongst the crowd of outstanding applicants is surprisingly straightforward and achievable with enough hard work and preparation.
1) Get to know the program they are applying to ‘backwards and forwards’ before the interview.
One of my students knew his target program so well that after being asked one interview question, he spoke for 20 minutes about his goals—perfect! Yes, he got in.
2) Rehearse the interview as much as possible and anticipate the most challenging questions imaginable.
When candidates anticipate and prepare for tough questions to the point that they are able to say, ‘I considered that question and this is what I think…’, it is very impressive to interviewers, not because the answer is perfect, but because candidates have done their homework.
3) Be comfortable and prepared enough to pose good questions and make good comments during the interview.
When a candidate is relaxed enough to make the interview into a conversation, commenting and asking questions politely and in a timely way, interviewers feel comfortable as well because they are freed up to listen instead of asking questions from a list.
4) Be able to show the interview committee how they think.
When candidates do the hard work to prepare clear thinking and express clear thoughts, it allows interviewers to see how they will perform in the program. This is very impressive because it goes far beyond cookie-cutter answers that are safe, to real-time thoughts that risk failure. Taking this risk is remarkable, in part, because it means these candidates are holding up a mirror to themselves for others to see.
5) Be prepared to discuss their weaker areas, and ideally bring these up without being asked.
Acknowledging, discussing, and providing a path for improvement for such challenges is exactly what interviewers want to see. Simply put, everyone wants to work with those who can admit their weaknesses and challenge themselves to improve.
6) Be able to simply admit that they are nervous or excited about the interview at the beginning.
It’s amazing how powerful talking about these simple emotions is in an interview. It literally puts everyone at ease, especially when it comes with a smile and energy—perfect!
7) Have the confidence to get clarification regarding any question they don’t understand.
When candidates have enough self-assurance to say, ‘I’m sorry, I don’t understand your question, could you please rephrase it?’, it signals maturity to an interview committee, which is something they very much want to see.
8) Have a final comment ready to sum up their thoughts about the interview.
Statements like, ‘I really want to become part of this program’ are simple, but powerful ways to leave a positive and lasting impression.
9) Remember the primacy-recency effect in interviewing.
That is, people tend to remember how you begin and finish an interview more than the details in the middle (Morrison, 2015)—meaning start strong and finish strong.
10) Realize that simple hard work and persistence are often the key to successful interviews.
The 2014 Nobel Laureate in chemistry from the US, Dr. Eric Betzig, encouraged people who want to succeed ‘to work 10% harder than the other guy and to get immersed in solving difficult problems’—in other words, challenge yourself.
Candidates should never forget that if they are being interviewed, they are seriously being considered for the slot. That means they have the right qualifications and the interview committee wants to see how they will perform under pressure and if they can express their apparent knowledge, desire, and experience confidently, with humility and team spirit.
It should also be noted that the same basic approach to advanced education interviews, as outlined above, also applies to job interviews.
If you need help building your confidence to show why you are the best candidate for an opportunity in education or at an occupational level, see my email address and other contact information below. I can really help you succeed in this area.
Chowdhury, F. (2018). Grade inflation: Causes, consequences and cure. Journal of Education and Learning, 7(6), 86-92.
Erikson, E. H. (1963). Childhood and society (2nd ed.). New York: Norton.
Morgan, C., Tops, A., & van Weert, C. (2014). Professional development: Giving effective feedback in higher education.
Morrison, M. (2015, Mar). Primacy and recency effects in learning.
Piaget, J. (2001). The psychology of intelligence (2nd ed.). USA: Rutledge, 202 p.
Schwartz, H. L. (Ed.) (2012). Interpersonal boundaries in teaching and learning. San Francisco: Jose-Bass.
Dr. A E Schneider holds several graduate degrees from Columbia University, including a doctoral degree in Science Education, as well as master’s degrees in TESOL, Organizational Psychology, and Counseling Psychology. In 2015, Dr. Schneider took a master’s degree from The American University in Cairo, in International and Comparative Education. Please visit the links below if you interested in services that include professional editing, research paper development, business and conversational English, business coaching, teacher development, or school improvement. Special discounts offered for Thai residents.
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“I have had gifted students cry because I was the only person who had ever forced them to talk about themselves in an honest way.”
What? You are the one and only honest person in every one of your student’s lives? You are proud of making students cry?
I think you are trying to make yourself appear far more important than you really are.
I have written hundreds of recommendation letters for students for a variety or reasons, for the vast majority who are applying to “normal” graduate programs the letters would appear to be just a requirement needed to tick off an item on a list and as long as the student meets the basic requirements of GPA and test score and are able to pay the tuition they will get in.
Although whether the contents of a letter or the rank and the academic reputation of the recommendation letter writer is of much importance is debatable when students are applying for elite graduate programs (something I have little experience with), competitive scholarships or highly competitive jobs (things I have extensive experience with),
People who claim they know what committees or individuals are looking for when selecting students for elite programs, scholarships, or even jobs are fooling themselves and others. The subjective portion of these decisions are arbitrary and based on the values and personal experiences of the people doing the selecting. An answer which shows confidence to one interviewer can be seen as arrogant by another. Unless you know the individuals who are doing the selection, your advice for how to handle an interview or what to write in a recommendation letter is pretty close to worthless.
I don’t think I have ever made a gifted student cry and I have rarely pointed out the weaknesses of the students I have written recommendation letters for, yet I have been thanked countless times for my help and have seen many of my former students go on to graduate programs or obtain jobs for which I recommended the student. I am not saying my way is right and your way is wrong, even if you think your way is right and everyone who deviates from your advice is wrong.
By Jack, On a sofa (21st September 2019)