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My references for my graduate program applications include an adjunct professor and an industry professional (both not very academic) and I am not sure if they really have time to invest in writing the recommendations for me, although I am pretty sure they will write for me if I asked them to.

I heard that often time the reference would ask the students to draft the letter before they even edit and send away online because they are usually busy and really don't give a damn on your application or simply because they haven't written any recommendation before. So I wonder if it is okay to just ask in the first place something like "I can also draft the letters for you if you don't have time (Are there better ways to express this request?)" when I reach out to my references to write the recommendations for me?

Another good thing about this is I can basically write in a way that includes what I think the admission committee would consider valuable in my letter. I mean, after all, I know about my program much better than my references, and I know how to better phrase my experience to make them relevant.

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    "include an adjunct professor" For some academic fields, an adjunct often has more experience with issues related to job searches than a tenured faculty member. – Dave L Renfro Dec 10 '17 at 19:04
  • Be sure to tell your referees what the deadline is. The reason should be obvious, but if I had a nickel for each request without that information... – Bob Brown Dec 10 '17 at 21:16
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Short of asking to draft the letter (which many letter writers consider inappropriate), you can simply ask the letter writer to address particular issues in your letter. You should also supply copies of your resume, academic transcripts, and any statement of purpose that you've written so that the letter writer can tailor the letter to support your application.

For example, you might say something like (to your industry professional), "I think that your letter could help by commenting on my work habits and skills in software development. As you can see, I'm particularly interested in doing a dissertation related to machine learning, so you might also address my experience in machine learning at XYZ corp."

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Both as a recommender and someone who occasionally needs recommendations, I suggest bullet points as a good middle ground between drafting your own recommendations or just leaving it to the reviewers. Figuring out what you want the recruiters to know about you, in bullet point form, is also helpful in deciding who you want to write your recommendations. Make sure that everything you want the recruiters to hear is "covered" by at least one recommender.

So you might decide that Professor X can talk best about your personal qualities like creativity and determination, whereas Professor Y who has been to graduate school can testify that you have the qualities needed to succeed in that kind of work. (Just an example.) Then you write something like the following:

Dear Professor X,

[blah blah blah... make the "ask"]

Thank you in advance! If it helps you to write the letter, here are a few points that I think it would be good for the admissions committee to hear:

  • creativity and teamwork, demonstrated by my course project on [topic] in your class
  • persistence: remember how many versions of that term paper I went through until I got it right?
  • academic excellence: got an A or A- in all my major courses (see my transcript attached)

Bullet points like these first two are also a great reminder for your professors. Chances are, they remember your name and face, and know that you were a good student, but probably can't remember specific episodes or what your term paper was about. The last bullet is okay, even though you're not asking the recommender to give his own experience with you. It can be very effective to have a trusted person point out aspects of your resume or transcript that you don't want to brag about in your cover letter.

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