Tips for Letters of Recommendation

By Haley Zaremba

Your letters of recommendation are key to building a great music school application.

Who are the right people to reach out to? What do those letters need to say? And how make-or-break are good references when it comes to getting into your music school of choice?

All of these questions – and the application process as a whole – can be daunting. But here are some simple guidelines to make sure your recommendations give you a leg up.

Who should you ask?

The first and most important factor in getting a good letter of recommendation is that the recommender really knows you well and has worked with you over a sustained period of time.

Personal experience and direct, detailed observation are key. Your recommender should be able to write about your skills, work ethic and character with details and examples, not in sweeping generalizations that will sound copy-pasted from any other letter of recommendation.

“Think about who knows you best, as a musician, as a person, as a student, etc. Get letters from people close to you!” says Thomas Carsecka, director of Music Enrollment and Community Programs at Duquesne University’s Mary Pappert School of Music.

Does your recommender have to know you in a strictly musical context?

Not necessarily, but it can be a huge benefit. Depending on how many reference letters you’re supplying to any given school, at least one should be from someone who knows you well as a musician – especially for applications to a conservatory-modeled program, says Dr. Daniel Strong Godfrey, who chairs Northeastern University’s Department of Music. “Music teachers in the student’s program are first priority, followed by others (piano teacher, choir director, etc.) who have worked directly with the student,” he says.

Other people who have been integral in your life can be excellent references as well: “Academic teachers, athletic coaches, and leaders of extra-curricular and religious programs are also important adults in students’ lives and can provide wonderful points of view,” says Cathy Partlow Strauss, who directs conservatory communications for the Oberlin Conservatory of Music. “It’s important that the recommender has some perspective on the student’s character and their ability to develop, adapt, and grow, and is able to write about that experience in a way that demonstrates their connection to the student.”

Amanda Hosking, director of admission for The New School’s College of Performing Arts, agrees and encourages students to seek references from “people who may be able to speak to your perseverance or how you encountered a challenge.”

Of course you’ll want to make sure that whoever you ask for a recommendation letter from will be able to supply the kind of reference the schools you’re applying to are asking for.

Who shouldn’t you ask?

While it’s crucial that your recommender knows you well, the person you choose should be trustworthy to write an objective reference – meaning that you should not ask family members. A letter of recommendation written by a family member is questionable in its credibility and lacks a certain air of professionalism.

On the other end of the spectrum, avoid people who do not know you well enough to write a detailed and thoughtful letter. Even if your recommender has an impressive background themselves or holds sway in the music industry, it won’t reflect well on your application if they don’t truly know you as a person as well as a musician.

Furthermore, “Non-credible or questionable references should be avoided. Research your recommenders!” says Carsecka.

What to include in a letter of recommendation?

Be specific and intentional about what you ask recommenders to write.

“For prospective music majors,” says Dr. Chris Tanner, chair of the Department of Music at Miami University, “this would naturally include things such as musical aptitude, technical proficiency, and experience in the discipline (e.g., performing, teaching private students, assisting a director). He adds, “Other recommenders may be selected based on their capacity to address ‘non-musical’ qualities that are nonetheless important considerations, such as work ethic, professional comportment, or integrity.”

You can help your recommenders by providing them a refresher of your accomplishments and recent activity. Send them an updated résumé, an update on your academic and extracurricular interests and accomplishments, and perhaps even a few of your concrete goals in music school and beyond. Dr. Joel Schut, assistant director of Orchestral Studies at the University of Colorado Boulder College of Music, recommends that students provide a “brag sheet” which highlights whatever you are most proud of, including “accomplishments, work ethic, community service, etc.” All of these details can provide a helpful point of reference for the person writing your letter of recommendation.

If you’re not sure what you want your letter to say, Thomas Carsecka suggests writing a recommendation letter for yourself as a practice exercise. “You may be surprised what you uncover about yourself!” he says.

Ultimately, it all comes down to the details. “What’s important is for a letter to be highly specific and detailed in outlining the students strengths and activities,” says Northeastern’s Professor Godfrey. “That’s much more credible than a string of superlatives. The former aims to be genuinely informative; the latter makes the reader’s eyes glaze over.” In order to avoid turning in a boring, rote letter, work with your recommender to discuss which details are the most indicative of you as the unique individual your music school of choice would be lucky to have in its program.

How and when to ask for a letter of recommendation?

Request a letter of recommendation through a polite and thoughtful email or phone call. While these emails should be personal, they should not be casual. “All emails should be written with a clear salutation and signature in a formal business style,” recommends Dr. Schut. Furthermore, he tells students to write this email or make this contact themselves. While your parents may want to help, this process should stay between you and your recommender.

It’s extremely important to provide recommenders as much time as possible. “Keep in mind that teachers may be receiving numerous requests from students,” says Dr. Tanner. “Asking someone on Monday to write a recommendation letter that has to be submitted on Friday, for example, is bad form.” At least one month is ideal; you should never, ever give someone less than a full week’s notice.

“If you’re asking for your college application, it would be wise to ask as soon as you return to school in the Fall of your senior year, if not sooner,” says Amanda Hosking.

Never blindside a recommender by listing them on your college applications without getting their express permission first.

Lastly, it’s always good to follow up with those who have agreed to write you a letter of recommendation. In an email reminder a few days before the letter is due, you can find out if they need any additional information or if you can answer any questions. This will help you work with them to get the best possible letter of recommendation to your prospective schools.

Say thank you!

Letters of recommendation are an extremely valuable part of your college application. They provide a personal touch that lets a music school see who you are as a complex human being who will be a great addition to their program. You’re not just a résumé and grade point average!

The people you ask to write your recommendations will put a lot of thought and effort into helping you get into a school or schools where you think you’ll be a good fit. It’s not an easy job, and the more you can do to help guide them, the better. Be thoughtful, respectful, and intentional with your requests and your follow ups. As Dr. Tanner says, “How you approach people to write on your behalf may be just as important as who you approach.”

And one more thing – don’t forget to send a thank you note to your references!

Haley Zaremba is a freelance writer and journalist with an MFA in Food Studies from American University of Rome and a BA in Media Studies from University of San Francisco. Her writing ranges from music and culture to energy and the environment. Photo Credit: Hamza Tighza

Also see:
Essays, Personal Statements, and Résumés for Music Students

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