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Gap Years and Grad School Recommendations

Advising in College of LAS, part of the Access and Achievement Program (AAP).

If I take a gap year (or three), how will I get recommendations from professors for grad school?

Lots of people go to grad school years after they graduate from college, so taking some time off doesn’t put you in an unusual situation. If you expect that grad school will be part of your future, it’s a good idea to lay the groundwork for getting recommendations from professors while you’re still on campus and in regular contact with them. Here’s how:

  1. Go to office hours or make an appointment with your professor. Let them know your plans and ask if they’d be willing to write you a graduate school recommendation in future.
  2. Keep copies of all your significant papers for courses you took with professors you plan to ask for recommendation. Graded copies with comments are particularly helpful. Notes to yourself of things you found particularly illuminating or helpful about the class can also come in handy. Don’t trust your memory — write down things that you can draw on later to remind the professor of the particular class(es) you took with them and your performance as a student.
  3. Keep in mind that professors can be a source of information, advice, and guidance on what kind of degree to pursue and where (depending of course on how closely your plans align with their expertise).
  4. After you graduate, check in every six months or year to update your professor on your plans and remind them that you exist. How you do that — email, holiday card, letter — depends on you and the relationship you have with the professor.
  5. When you are ready, contact the professor with plenty of advance warning to ask for the recommendations. Include copies of those graded papers and your recollections of the class, particularly if a lot of time has elapsed

If you feel awkward about building this kind of relationship with your professors, bear in mind that expectations for recommendations vary widely between programs. A pre-professional program in business or human resources, for example, may only need recommenders to confirm that you are good enough at going to school to succeed in a graduate program. On the other hand, funded MA/PhD programs will require a much more detailed and robust account of your potential to contribute original research in the field and participate in a community of scholars — and your willingness to engage with the professors you’ve already worked indicates how well you will adapt to those expectations.