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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.
Start thinking about your recommendations 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.
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.
Make It Personal
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 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.
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. In it, 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.
Finally, letters from big-name scholars can certainly get admissions committees' attention. But the usefulness of a letter from Prof. Supernova, who can't quite place your face, not to mention your abilities, is questionable.
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