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University of Southern California
University of Southern California
USC Chan Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy
USC Chan Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy
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How to go to OT graduate school after being out of school for a long time/Step 4 — Getting letters of recommendation


January 12, 2022


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This will be my last blog about how to go to OT graduate school after being out of school for a long time. No matter where you apply, you will need to have letters of recommendation. Knowing how to get letters of recommendation is not only useful for the graduate application process but some of the tips mentioned below can also be applied to other aspects in life. I guarantee that later in life you will need people to serve as a reference for your personality, character, and professional abilities. This will never go away. Trust me on this. At some point, you will need to ask someone that is not your friend or family to vouch for you personally and professionally. Although I put this as the last step, I must emphasize — DO NOT DO THIS LAST. In fact, this is one of the easier things you can start to do once you have decided that you want to go back to OT graduate school after being out of school for a long time.

Like the other steps, what I have written is what worked for me. You may decide to do something different. Remember, do what works for you. You do you!

Whenever I see the words “please submit letters of recommendation” or “provide professional references”, I always get stuck trying to figure out who I should ask. You might feel this way too. For some of you, this might be based on thinking you have no one to ask. For others, you might have an idea of who to ask but are unsure of what they might say. For almost everyone, there is the problem that once you do have an idea who to ask, you don’t know how or when to ask. All are very important concerns that you will need to figure out on your own, or with a trusted friend or mentor prior to asking someone to write a recommendation for you.

For those of you who think you don’t have anyone that can write a recommendation for you because you don’t know anyone other than your family and friends, or are an introvert or feel that you don’t think anyone would want to vouch for you as a future occupational therapist, let me stop you right there. Remember, you’ve already done this process before. You wouldn’t be here if you hadn’t. You did it to get into college. You’ve done it to apply for jobs, perhaps to rent an apartment, or even to adopt an animal. All have required you to get someone that is not your family or friend to vouch for you as a person. Applying to graduate school is no different. In fact, some of those people you used for recommendations in the past might work for this situation too.  You may be thinking, “Ok, but I’ve never been an occupational therapist before, so what can they possibly say to vouch for me to be an OT grad student?” Remember, admissions departments are trying to determine whether the program will benefit you and if you will benefit from the program. It’s important for them to find out why you are passionate about occupational therapy, what type of work ethic you have, and if you are an empathetic and caring person. Hearing from people who know you can help them answer these questions. What I did was I made a list of people who might be able to answer these questions. Remember we have been adulting for a while so there are probably a lot of people we know who would be happy to recommend you. People I thought of included a former supervisor, former colleagues, a pastor, a mentor, a fellow volunteer at a community service project I had done, and people in my prior career network. You are bound to come up with at least one or two people when you think back over the past 5/10/15 or even 20 years post-college.

If you still can’t think of anyone, you will be meeting a lot of people as you take classes and volunteer in preparation for meeting the graduate application requirements. In both areas, you will interact with people who will want to learn about your reasons for changing careers and wanting to be an occupational therapist. People will want to know you. If you haven’t already, allow these people to get to know you. Go out for a coffee with them, talk to them about your future, get their feedback on things you’re encountering or questions you have. As difficult as it might be, especially for us introverts, do all you can to make yourself known. I know this is hard. But don’t’ forget it is so much easier for people to write a recommendation for you if they know you. While I was initially reluctant to get to know new people, I got to know one of my community college instructors who showed genuine interest in me. I put myself out there by going to office hours and having meaningful conversations with them about my future professional goals. Even though I only knew them for about a year, when I thought about who I should get to write a recommendation they were one of the first people I felt confident would be able to speak to my character and abilities as it related to going to graduate school in occupational therapy.

Now, for those of you who have a list of people to ask but are unsure of what they might say about you. Here are some questions I used to determine if they were the right person to ask for a recommendation:

  1. How do I know them?
  2. Have they known me a long time? Do they know me well?
  3. When was the last time I spoke to them? What was the conversation? Did it end on a positive note?
  4. Have they ever shown any interest in my professional goals, interests, or life pursuits?
  5. Have they privately and/or publicly given me positive or negative feedback about my character, or professional skills?
  6. Have I ever read anything they have written? Was the writing clear?
  7. What do they think about my change in career? Are they supportive or shocked?
  8. Will their recommendation/perspective complement the other recommendations?

Once you have decided who to ask, do not wait. People need a lot of time to write a recommendation. If you can give them at least a month that would be great. Start by calling them or meeting with them in person. If you can’t speak to them directly leave a message and then follow up with an email. My conversations were easy because I had already been speaking to many people about going back to school. But if you haven’t talked to the person for a long time, start your discussion by catching up with them, and then once you start talking about what you are currently up to just say: “Hey, you know how I used to talk about going back to graduate school in occupational therapy, well I actually am starting to apply to schools now and I was wondering if you would be willing to write a letter of recommendation for me?”

To this day whenever I have asked for a reference or letter of recommendation, no one has refused. However, if someone does tell you they can’t write a recommendation, accept it and move on to the next person. Most likely the reason will be due to time. (This often happens when you ask professors who are maybe already writing a lot of recommendations while also trying to grade midterms or finals.) If they do agree to write a letter, make sure to send a follow-up email with simple instructions on what they need to do as well as a clearly indicated deadline. One week prior to the deadline check in with them if they have not submitted the recommendation. Once they have submitted the recommendation, make sure to send them a very sincere thank you email or better yet a card via snail mail! Finally, regardless of whether you get into graduate school or not, don’t forget to contact them after you find out. If you get into the school of your choice thank them again for their help and let them know your next steps. Also, if you didn’t get into graduate school, thank them again for their help and let them know your next steps. People like to know what happened!

Oh, one other response you might encounter when asking people to write a recommendation is the person you ask might ask you to write the recommendation for them. I always find this to be odd. While it cuts out the mystery of what they will say, it also means they really don’t know you or have very little to write about you. Either way they are not really recommending you but are signing off on you recommending yourself. Which is strange. I don’t do this but know people who have . . .

FYI — For my application, I ended up asking three very important people in my life. I asked a former pastor of mine who I had known for many years and helped him to do volunteer projects. I asked a former supervisor, who I had known for years. It’s funny because I just had a long phone call with her the other day. I also asked a person I met during my journey going back to school, the amazing occupational therapist I spent many hours observing while volunteering at an inpatient rehab. However, I had a list of about 6 people who I felt comfortable asking to give me recommendations or references. I keep in touch with them and am so grateful for their support.

I hope you have cultivated similar relationships with sincere and kind people who are supportive of your professional development and willing to say how amazing you would be as a graduate student and an occupational therapist. If this hasn’t happened get started today by reaching out to people from your past or starting new relationships if you can. As you continue to figure out how to go to OT graduate school, I hope that this blog entry as well as the ones I wrote before were helpful. I wish you the best of luck getting back into school after a long time. Remember it’s never too late to start something new!