Get Effective Letters of Recommendation
Recommendations rank among the most important items in your admissions file. In many cases, they are the most important, making or breaking many an application. So start thinking about them as soon as possible. The whole process of identifying good recommenders, lining them up, and then making sure they follow through with winning letters can take a lot of time.
Try To Elicit Personal Recommendations
Choose people who like you and who think you're good at what you do. If you're still in college or a recent grad, your college professors will likely make the best references. This is especially true if you're going on to study the same subject in grad school.
Choose good writers who can express their opinions clearly. If a potential recommender seems less than enthusiastic in any way, keep looking. That person's ambivalence is likely to come through in the letter.
Help Your Recommenders Do The Work
The more personalized and detailed your letters are, the better. So invest the time to make your recommenders' job as easy as possible. Try to set up an appointment or lunch interview to discuss your grad school interests with each letter writer. At these interviews, review your academic performance and see what other information they'd like. Providing copies of your papers, portfolios of your work, and the like will help writers make their letters as focused and specific as possible.
Provide your recommenders with all the info, forms, stamped and addressed envelopes they'll need. Make sure they're aware of deadlines and follow up later. By all means, give them as much time as possible. Writing a good reference takes time and your recommenders will likely have other competing demands for time — and other recommendations to write.
Keep your recommendation writers on schedule. Provide a gentle reminder when a deadline is approaching. Pave the way for this reminder when you first ask for the recommendation by mentioning a date for a follow-up call. And, of course, a thank-you letter at the end of the process is always appreciated.
Out of School for a While?
If you've been out of college for a while, it can be harder to find someone to write a letter of reference. One solution is to establish a "credentials file" before you leave college. Keep reference letters on file for later mailing. Most grad schools will make a reasonable accommodation for older students and accept letters from your bosses or colleagues who can attest to your intellectual abilities and suitability for grad school. But getting a boss or work colleague to attest to intellectual abilities that specifically relate to graduate study can be a challenge. Sometimes taking a college or grad-level course and asking that teacher for a reference can be a good solution for this problem.