Writing a Successful Personal Statement (Statement of Purpose) in 25 Hours

By Isabella Lanza, PhDthought-catalog-217861

If you read the title of this article and thought, ’25 hours! What the…?’, this article is for you. Let me walk you through both the process and format that can take you from a semi-clueless writer of personal statements to an all-star of the personal statement world.

Process and Time Needed

The worst thing you can do when writing a personal statement is spending only one or two days on your statement before submitting it with your application materials. Slapping it together and calling it a day will not get you anywhere, unless you are applying to so-called ‘money-mill’ programs (think professional graduate programs that charge a bundle of $$$ for your degree). If that’s what you’re aiming for, well you could probably slap together a good enough statement in even a day. But for the rest of you reading this, before writing even a single word of your personal statement, you first need to outline a plan for writing your statement. You should also plan to complete the process over a month (this provides you time to have others read your statement and give you useful feedback), and spend around 25 hours from start to finish. Here is the process I recommend:

Day 1 (3 hours): Outline the Personal Statement – Use the format below if you don’t already have a preset format to create an outline of your statement. The outline shouldn’t contain complete sentences, but instead captures the key ideas, phrases/words, and examples you want to present. You don’t even need to organize your thoughts within subtopics (paragraphs) yet…that’s for Day 2.

Day 2 (4 hours): Detailed Outline – Prior to actually writing out your statement in essay format, make sure you have all the content that you want to highlight plus have the content organized in a clear and fluid manner. Follow the basic essay structure you learned back in elementary school. Paragraphs (excluding the introduction and conclusion) should have a topic sentence, evidence in the middle, and a conclusion sentence that also acts as a transition to the next area in your statement. Laying out your statement in an outline form before writing complete sentences is essential for identifying problems in organization and a lack of evidence to build sound arguments.

Days 3, 4, 5 (6 hours of writing; plus 7.5 hours of research and tailoring): Complete Draft – Spend at least three days on your personal statement draft (give yourself at least a few days to refresh your brain between these days). If you are not a strong writer, google examples of personal statements in your field, or better yet, if you know peers that are/were already in graduate programs you are applying to, ask them if they would be willing to share their statements with you. Reviewing personal statements from others that have had successful outcomes is a smart move that surprisingly few students utilize.

On top of this, set aside 1.5 hours per program to research unique strengths of each program/institution, and then tailor your statement to each individual program/institution by highlighting these unique qualities (see section below). I recommend applying to at least five graduate programs, but encourage students to select 8 programs if they’re in highly competitive fields.

Day 6 (2.5 hours): Edit based on Feedback – Identify two people that are willing to read through your draft and give you detailed feedback (preferably on track changes). Ask an advisor, professor, mentor to give you comments focused more on content. You also want to identify someone to check your grammar, semantics, and overall clarity. If you can afford it, think about paying a professional to review your statement (average costs range from $120-150).

Day 7 (2 hours): Final Edits – Once you have edited your statement based on feedback, take a few days off and then go back and edit again. Also, read your statement out loud! Many typos or awkward sentences are easily overlooked when reading the same document over and over, but reading out loud makes these errors easier to spot.

Day 8: Spend the day treating yourself because you’re done!


Of course, the length, content, and organization of each personal statement needs to be tailored to the requirements and/or preferences of the program(s) you are applying to, but below is a standard outline form that you can use as a general personal statement template. Organization, clarity, integration, and non-redundancy is key. You should aim to write your personal statement in about 1200 words (about 2 single-spaced pages with 1-inch margins; I prefer Arial 11 pt. font), unless otherwise specified by the program.

Here is the format I recommend for a personal statement:


I’ll repeat this again when I discuss the conclusion, but I am astounded by how many personal statements I’ve come across that don’t have a proper introduction. If you were planning to just start by going over your academic background or past professional experience, your statement will come off as awkward and you’ll be perceived as a hasty or poor writer. Before you get to the ‘meat’ of your statement, take the time to come up with three to four sentences that provide a preview of what is to come. This preview also does double duty for highlighting your key strengths, academic and professional achievements, and most importantly the main reason for pursuing the specific graduate program and your long-term career goal. You have to be strategic about how you can summarize your entire personal statement in a short paragraph just in case an admissions committee member doesn’t have time to read your entire statement and only takes a look at the introduction. I’m not saying that will happen, but with the hundreds of applications programs receive, very few people will have time to closely read through your entire statement. Be smart and give admissions committees a synopsis at the beginning of your statement that tells them everything they need to know to give you an interview or offer of admission.

Academic Background

This section, along with the following on professional experience, are the easiest sections to write because they are very fact-based. However, students still make errors here by keeping to the facts without promoting oneself and/or writing cumbersome, detail-oriented lists of accomplishments that have poor organization.

In the academic background section, besides briefly stating your academic degrees, concentrations, etc., the key is to 1) highlight how your academic achievements will inform your success in graduate school and 2) convey to the reader that you will have no problem exceling in your graduate studies. For instance, if you have a B.A. in Human Development you can note that being exposed to interdisciplinary learning has given you the ability to integrate and utilize multiple perspectives in problem solving. Of course, providing an example here that directly ties to the field you are pursuing would be a plus. You want to wrap this section up by convincing the admissions committee that you will be a stellar graduate student by providing concrete evidence of past academic achievements/accomplishments. This is not the time to be humble or modest, so any academic accolades that can set you apart from the pack needs to be shown off! If you have been substantially employed during your undergraduate studies (think 25+ hours a week), this feat could be used as a nice transition to the next section on professional experience.

Professional Experience

Yes, you should provide a run-down of your professional experience; however, this paragraph is much more than just a list. It’s a chance to show the admissions committee that you’re prepared and already committed to the field.

If you have a vast amount of professional experience, only choose the 2-3 experiences that are strongly tied to your future graduate program/career goals. I’m not exactly sure why some students treat their pertinent professional experience, like interning at a child mental health clinic or working as a research assistant in a neuroscience lab, on the same level as working as a sales person at Forever 21, but I’ve seen it. Again, if you have substantial professional job experience that is related to your field of interest, focus on that and skip the non-related positions altogether*. Also, evidence, as is the case in so many of these sections, separates exceptional statements from ‘eh’ ones. Provide one or two examples of what you’ve gained in your professional experiences that will be applied to your graduate studies.

*Of course, if you don’t have related professional experience, this will be a huge disadvantage. Honestly, with how competitive all graduate programs are nowadays, unless you’re applying to a ‘money-mill’ professional master’s program, not having related professional experience is a deal breaker for most programs. Remember, professional experience doesn’t necessarily mean paid employment – internships, volunteer positions, non-paid service learning all count. Again, if you don’t have anything, re-evaluate applying to programs this round until you have some experience.

Reasons for choosing career path/long-term career goals

This is the ‘make-you or break-you’ section, so you better spend some serious time on it. At the end of the day if you don’t have a convincing argument of why you are pursuing graduate school and a specific career path, you need to stop the application process and re-evaluate your life goals. It’s ok – take a break and give yourself some space to contemplate. Talk to professors, mentors, family, peers, and therapists to help you gain a sense of how committed you are to your professional goals.

Most of the students I work with are seeking to go into the helping professions, which includes careers in the medical field (occupational therapy, nursing), education (teaching and academic counseling), social work, and psychology (both research-focused and clinical-focused). What all these students have in common is a desire to advance society by improving physical and/or mental health. Sounds wonderful, right? But time and time again, this objective tends to be vaguely described as, ‘I love helping people’ or ‘I want to help people improve their lives’. The problem with these statements is that they are too vague and flowery. They make an applicant appear less serious and dedicated to the field because they haven’t taken the time to provide evidence that they are committed to their career goals. If you have experience in the field (and you better), use specific examples here to make your case (‘After volunteering in homeless shelters for three years, I’ve observed how even limited resources can have a significant positive impact on a person’s well-being. I aim to use my graduate school training to identify mechanisms to improve the organizational structure within and networking across non-profits working with homeless populations in order to maximize the impact of available resources.’).

If you’re planning on a more research-focused graduate program, this is your prime opportunity to convey to the admissions committee that you are both passionate and committed to a specific research field. There is a fine line between too vague and too specific here. You don’t want to be too specific in your research interests because if the advisor(s) you are proposing to work with are transitioning to other research questions, you won’t look like a good fit for their new line of work. Also, it is more difficult to state your dedication to a specific line of research when you haven’t yet been heavily involved in the actual research. On the other hand, being too vague is a kiss of death because it conveys a lack of preparation and commitment, and if there’s one red flag admissions committees seek out in personal statements it’s hesitation and indecisiveness. A PhD graduate program makes a huge commitment when they take you on as a student –  money, resources, and time – and generally only expects students to continue in the field when they graduate. Keep these points in mind when you are identifying your research interests. I’d start with something broad, but not too vague, and then provide 1-2 more specific plans related to the research (e.g., ‘I aim to conduct research on peer relationships across childhood and adolescence, including the impact of bullying on academic achievement, and how the increasing salience of popularity across adolescence influences risk-taking behavior’).

A critical tip on when to include personal reasons for pursuing a career:

The most frequently asked question I get from undergraduates is whether they should put in personal information about why they have chosen their career path. To be frank, they usually want to know whether they should include information about their own experience with physical or mental illnesses. Simply put, if it’s a physical illness (e.g., parent died of cancer when you were a child, and your experience with a clinical social worker at the time was so beneficial that now you want to pursue this career), sure go ahead and include it (but don’t let it be your only reason). If it’s a mental illness or mental health-related reason (e.g., you suffer from clinical depression and want to research treatment, your father committed suicide and now you want to implement suicide prevention programs for low-income populations), 99% of the time I would recommend against it.  But why not include it, if it’s the main reason for pursuing a chosen career path? Because people are judgmental, and mental health is still greatly stigmatized. I’m not saying you need to keep these personal ties to your career a secret, but you should keep them out of a personal statement. Remember, even the most well-meaning, empathetic person will be influenced by your personal disclosures, so be wary of how personal you want to get on paper. A good reference is if you would be embarrassed to read it in front of a class, then keep it out of the statement.

Reasons for choosing to attend specific program

Compared to the section above on why you are choosing to go into a specific field and pursue a particularly career path, this section is a piece of cake, and yet many students are just straight up too lazy to do it (or to be more kind, maybe they don’t know to include it in the first place).

What a mistake to leave this section out or hastily throw in one sentence hidden somewhere in the personal statement. This section has the ability to make you look like a thoughtful candidate, and more importantly, this is where you can increase the committee’s positive feeling about themselves, which will inevitably trickle down to feeling more positively about you. If it sounds a bit manipulative, so be it – you want to get into grad school to your top choice, right?

The basic rule to follow is to take at least one hour of your life to choose three reasons why a particular graduate program is your top choice above all others. Um, but are you thinking they can’t all be your top choice? Obviously, they are not all going to be your #1 pick, but you need to act like every program is the best and link some of their strengths to your academic and career goals. The key is to be as specific as possible to show the admissions committee you have taken the time to get to know the program well, and that you see the VALUE of the program. You should choose at least two unique strengths of the program itself (e.g., the mentors/advisors you would have opportunities working with, the ability to start an internship or practicum a year earlier than other programs, a concentration on aging populations, etc.). Then what I recommend is to choose one or two strengths related to the overall institution or region (the university has a robust history of diversity and inclusiveness, the university has a community-building partnership you want to play a role in, the university is near populations you want to work with, etc.). Your job is to have the committee feeling high on school pride, so don’t get lazy at this point in your statement.


Many programs ask for you to identify a few strengths and weaknesses. This paragraph tells admissions committees so much about you – see this section is less about what your strengths and weaknesses are, and more about how well you present yourself in a professional setting.

When graduate schools ask you to identify strengths and weaknesses they view it as a test, so this is not the time to be honest about your wishy-washy commitment to the field you are applying or need to confess your explosive temper. If you just chuckled, I’ve actually seen both of these ‘weaknesses’ in personal statements. So how should you write this section? First, start by highlighting two of your strengths that are directly tied to exceling in a graduate program and in your career field. Perhaps it’s your exceptional writing ability, your knack at applying theory and conceptual frameworks to real-world problems, or your vast experience working with the population you are interested in working with long-term. Whatever the strengths you highlight they should be tied to your professional self. Avoid ‘fluffy’ personal strengths, like, ‘I care about others’. Just writing that out made me roll my eyes – you can care about others but word it more professionally and with a link to your field (e.g., ‘I am invested in creating dynamic, inclusive educational settings that encourage students to excel both academically and socially.)

Likewise, the weaknesses you identify in your statement should also be more specific than vague. Above all, your weaknesses (and I would just list one unless you are directly asked by a program to list more) should be aspects of yourself that can be modified (don’t choose a personality trait or something that people perceive as innate). To really step it up, a smart thing to do is mention how one of the facets of the graduate program will be instrumental in improving your identified weakness. Thank me later for that one.


Most times, students end their personal statement without a proper conclusion, which reflects a poorer than expected writing ability.

On multiple occasions I’ve seen statements end on strengths/weaknesses, which seems like a terrible place to abruptly end your statement. No matter what word limits you are working under, you need a conclusion that recaps all that has been said above. The key is to keep it very brief (50 words max; about 3 sentences). DO NOT include the phrase ‘I hope I have convinced the committee about my passion for blah blah blah, and I’d love the opportunity to be part of blah blah program’. Uh-uh. Graduate admissions committees want a non-groveling ending to a personal statement. No matter what, you want to: 1) reinforce whatever it is that makes you a unique candidate compared to the average applicant; 2) restate the key reason why this program is your top choice above all others; and 3) end with a statement on how you’re looking forward to pursuing (whatever the graduate program is) in order to achieve (long-term career goal).

With all that said, good luck on your graduate school applications!


5 Ways to Avoid Annoying your Professor

ThinkingBy Isabella Lanza, PhD

Your professors have a hold on you – whether you want to accept that or not doesn’t change this fact. This hold could be a grade, a career opportunity, or some other kind of support that you need to move forward in your academic and professional pursuits. So why are you hurting yourself by annoying them?

Yes, you heard me right. Something that I’ve noticed since I began to teach undergrads a decade ago is that students think professors are these robot-like creatures that are objective and morally superior. Sure, I used to have my own professor worship moments back in the day, but that is all but gone because I am well aware of how human-like professors are, with a list of flaws and weaknesses similar to any other person. A professor may have more knowledge and expertise in a field you are trying to grasp (which is why we listen to them), but they are not perfect in any sense. If we know anything in life, it’s that humans are fragile, emotional beings, and rationalism and self-control do not always overcome raw emotions.

If you are feeling a little defensive at the thought that you are doing anything wrong in your professor-student interactions, take my piece of advice and read through these tips. If you haven’t engaged in any of these behaviors, congratulate yourself on being a stellar student and go on with your business. However, if there is a chance that you’ve engaged in one of these behaviors, I hope you consider this friendly advice on how to improve your professor-student interactions.

1. Email etiquette 101: ‘Hey, are we getting back our exams tomorrow?’

This is the type of email that professors all too often see from students. Maybe it’s because we are living in an age where texting and social media have moved us into the extremes of brevity in written discourse, but the above real-life example is just a mess. In four easy steps, let me help you write an email that will make your professors feel very positively about you, no matter the subject of the email.

Step 1: The greeting is the most important aspect of the email. Refer to your professor by the title they prefer, most commonly Dr. or Professor. Side on formality unless they have specifically stated they prefer something else. Never skip addressing your professor by just saying ‘hi’ or worse ‘hey’.

Step 2: Acknowledge the professor’s schedule if you are asking/requesting something from them. ‘I know you are very busy with teaching, research, and other tasks…’ ‘I know this is an extremely busy time for professors…’. If you are not asking/requesting something just state ‘I hope you are having a great day…’.

Step 3: Make your request, but provide evidence for why the professor should consider meeting your request. ‘I would like to meet with you one-to-one to go over some questions I have for the exam. Unfortunately, I can’t come to your office hours because I have another class and I work during those times. I tried to change my work schedule this week but no one would cover my shift. I have read the text and my lecture notes twice and I still need clarification on 2-3 topics. My questions are probably best answered in person and not over email (I’m including them below). Would it be possible to meet with you to discuss my questions?

Step 4: Have a proper signature/send off. Always end with a proper send off like ‘Best,’ or ‘Thank you for considering my request,’. Include your full name at the end. Also, in the subject line of the email include the course name or number if you think the professor needs help identifying you.

2. Don’t write an email at 8pm and expect an answer that evening.

I’m pretty much always dumbfounded when a student asks me a question and expects the answer within hours, even when the email is being sent in the evening! Listen up – it is incredibly rude to expect that a professor will respond to your emails immediately at any time of day. Maybe you’ll be lucky and they will reply back quickly, but you should never expect it. It shows that you don’t perceive the person as having any down time from their work and that you think they should be available to you 24-7. It’s a sign of entitlement (I expect you to be there for me whenever I need you) and very inconsiderate behavior, yet I see this multiple times a semester. Sometimes it’s students asking questions about exams or papers due the NEXT day, and they are sending emails at 8, 9, or even 10pm. Sometimes it’s a student trying to make a meeting for the next day. I had this happen recently. I told a student to email me to schedule an appointment to review material for the final exam. There was a possibility we were both free on a specific day and time, but I told her she needed to email me to make the appointment. I didn’t hear from her for a few weeks and then – poof! – at 9pm the night before the intended meeting (a Sunday night no less) I receive an email asking if we’re still meeting tomorrow.

Tip: Make appointments several days ahead (preferably a week). You should not ask questions about tasks due the following day anytime after 6pm (think business hours). If you need a reply to your question before a task is due with less than 24 hours notice, ask but note that of course you understand it’s incredibly short notice and it’s unlikely you’ll receive an answer. Basically, make sure you state that you don’t expect an answer because you shouldn’t have waited until the last minute for help.

3. Show your appreciation with a thank you email.

Student: ‘I need help!’

Professor: ‘Here you go.’


Think about the last time you went to Starbucks or your favorite coffee place and ordered a drink. Did you say thank you when the barista called you up to get your drink? What about when you were in a merging lane and someone actually let you in without a fight? Ok, so the last time you emailed your professor a question about a paper, exam, or class in general, and they replied to your email, did you reply back with a thank you?

I’m going to guess about 75% of students that email me with a request never respond back with a thank you after I have taken time to reply back with an answer. If you would say thank you in person, why not over email?

Tip: If your professor replies back to your email, always respond back with a brief thanks.

4. You’re arguing for a point that won’t make any difference on your grade.

A while back I was giving an exam at a university that was known for its high-strung, competitive student body. A student who had just turned in an exam came back into the classroom to ask if she could have her exam back to answer a multiple-choice question she had forgotten to mark. I told her she could not because she had already turned in the exam and had exited the classroom (which meant she could have looked up the answer). The student burst into tears in front of an entire auditorium of students. She was wailing and stated, “If I don’t get an A in this class I will never get into my #1 choice for grad school!” I liked the student because she was hard-working and attentive, but I was irritated at her display, especially because the other students didn’t know what was going on and she was increasing their anxiety. It didn’t make sense to have a meltdown over a question that was worth no more than 2% of that exam, and maybe 0.04% of her entire course grade. She also had a solid A in the course throughout the semester. To this day I am boggled by this student’s reaction to missing one multiple-choice question.

Tip: If it’s an actual error in grading (professor scored incorrectly, added points up incorrectly, forgot to score) then by all means mention it. But if you need to ‘argue’ to earn a point or two back, avoid looking petty and neurotic and take the grade.

5. You missed out on participation points/in-class assignments because you skipped out on multiple classes, but at the end of the semester you ask for extra credit to salvage your grade.

Luckily, I have not had to deal with this situation often because students tend to attend my classes on a regular basis. If they don’t, I usually will email them asking where have they been, letting them know that the students and I miss seeing them, etc. This technique works well because sometimes students just need to know they are not invisible at a large university. I also make it a point to learn all my students’ names the first week of class, which really increases accountability. But many of my faculty colleagues and friends mention the end-of-semester extra credit emails they receive from students that barely made it to class, so I want to make it clear that this is not a wise move. Professors not only find this aggravating, but very disrespectful. The message conveyed is ‘this course isn’t important to me, but I need a certain grade so I expect you’ll help me out and give me what I want even though I don’t deserve it.’

Tip: Show up to class, even unprepared because some points are better than no points. If you are on the verge of failing a course AND you have shown yourself to be an engaged and hard-working student, speak to the professor privately and in person about the possibility of completing some type of coursework that could get you out of the failing zone.

I hope I have enlightened you a bit on what makes professors tick and how to improve your chances of making a positive impression with them. If you managed to get through this unscathed then I applaud you – keep it up!

Beware: 8 Types of ‘Bad’ Mentors and How to Deal with Them

The good, bad, and ugly: OK, let’s just talk about the bad and ugly regarding mentor relationships

By Isabella Lanza, PhD

mentor picIn the past month I’ve been seeking out a new mentor to help me adjust to junior faculty life. In my first year as an assistant professor, I relied heavily on what I learned in the past from great mentors, but towards the end of the academic year I felt I needed to gain mentorship from someone closer to my experience at my new institution. As I thought about how the mentoring process has affected my life, I first counted the number of mentors I’ve had had since college. I was somewhat surprised that I’ve had 15-20 mentors in close to 20 years. Of these 15-20 mentors, I still have contact with about half of them (I’m pretty lousy about keeping in touch with people in general). Surprisingly, whether or not I consider them a great, good, ok, or terrible mentor doesn’t correlate with whom I’ve kept in contact with, and I’m not sure what that signifies.

Anyway, thinking about all these mentors forced me to relive some highs and lows throughout my academic career and while it would be worthwhile to speak on the amazing mentorship I’ve received along the way, the real lessons to be learned are in identifying the types of mentors to be cautious of or just totally avoid. Although there are an abundant number of things that could make your mentor relationship less than ideal, generally these issues can be categorized under mentor ‘types’ that are easy to spot. Here is a list of types of mentors to keep an eye out for, and some recommendations on how to handle these ‘bad’ mentors:

‘I’m all talk’ Mentor

Some mentor relationships start off so well. Promises of advice, support, and other assistance sounds blissful to your ears, especially when you are a novice that needs a lot of help maneuvering the field. But this relief is short-lived because the ‘I’m all talk’ mentor is all about lip service. He/she doesn’t have real intentions to put in the time and effort to mentor you, but you have no idea this is the case until you’re in the middle of a dilemma and he/she could not be less caring. I don’t think this neglect is intentional (or I hope not!), but that doesn’t really help when you have no one to rely on in a time of crisis. The bottom line is this mentor does not have time for you. This mentor has likely overextended him/herself to such a degree that it’s difficult for him/her to keep track of you and the expectations set for the relationship. This is very common in academia when people are signing up left and right on grants, publications, and projects that require a mentor or senior person without the actual intention to mentor or advise. It’s a name only type of relationship, and in many cases it’s critical to a student or junior faculty’s progression, which is why this non-mentorship continues to exist. My recommendation is if you demand some real mentorship, specify a mentoring plan upfront and create an accountability plan with your mentor. If he/she is hesitant then it’s up to you to decide if you really need this mentor.

‘The Sourpuss’ Mentor

I think we’ve all come across someone who is continually bitter, disgruntled, and peeved about anything and everything. But can you imagine this person being a mentor? Although he/she may actually like you, his/her negative perspective on life may influence your own perception of the field and your career path. No one wants to be known as the sourpuss, and mentees may think if they model their lives after this type of mentor they will inevitably become just as disgruntled and negative. It’s also draining to deal with a moody mentor who is unhappy. You may start to feel like you need to dampen down your happiness level when talking to him/her (commiserate), or may even start to reverse roles by taking steps to cheer the sourpuss up. Definitely do not try to take this mentor under your wing in hopes you will have him/her feeling rainbows, puppies, and lollipops. It’s not going to work. Just leave the bad mood alone and try to gain as much good mentorship as you can while limiting face-to-face interactions. This mentor is also prone to gossiping about colleagues or other students, so limiting your physical interactions with this type of mentor may help you escape the black hole of drama and pettiness that we’ve all seen in academia.

‘Re: Out of Office Reply’ Mentor

Oh, the dreaded MIA (missing in action) mentor. Never around – either through physical or technological means – this mentor has very little time for you. If you have less than two interactions with a mentor a year (and desire more), you should re-evaluate whether this mentor relationship needs to survive. It’s completely understandable if he/she has a big name and can help you network into a great school or job, but don’t totally rely on his/her advice or support for major decisions. This mentor really doesn’t know you well enough to know what’s best for your situation. Take the advice this mentor gives you with a grain of salt by comparing it to other mentors who know you better.

‘All up in your business’ Mentor

This mentor is nosy…very nosy. He/she wants to know everything about you – what you did over the weekend, whom you are dating, whether you want to have kids, whether you smoke marijuana, if you’ve ever shoplifted, what your favorite color was in first grade, your feelings on Hillary Clinton vs. Bernie Sanders – you get my drift. Now it’s possible that a mentor is nosy because he/she is just a good-natured inquisitive person. But to be on the safe side, just assume the ‘all up in your business’ mentor is not the one you want to divulge your deepest, darkest secrets. It’s possible he/she is a conniving person that will use your personal qualities or experiences against you or to control you. In general, you always need to be thoughtful about the personal information you impart to others in professional settings. Think, “Could this be used against me one day?” But be especially on alert when you have a nosy mentor. Keep your boundaries up at all times too. Once when I was much younger and was prone to sleeping until 11am on the weekends (don’t judge), I had a mentor call me at 8am on a Sunday morning. Red flags set off because a phone call was not the norm even back in my day (yes, we had email) and there was no emergency to attend to on a weekend morning. I clearly sensed that this mentor was trying to catch me in something he/she judged inappropriate. My thought is that if you display a professional boundary most people will gladly abide to it and even the nosiest mentor will stop hassling you (eventually – so be persistent). However, some may be very difficult to resist and ties may need to be cut off.

‘When you have a chance…’ Mentor

How’s your schedule looking? Trying to enjoy the weekend out with friends or family? Like to get 7-8 hours sleep? Thinking tonight is the night you’ll go for that 5 mile run? Not with this mentor. He/she will always, and I mean always, seek you out to give you new tasks that are likely to take 500% more time and effort than he/she imagines. This mentor is usually a senior person that has absolutely no clue how long tedious or menial tasks take because he/she hasn’t done them in 20+ years. However, this mentor might also be a junior person that just has no life, and by default, you should have no life too. And if you’re wondering, “Wait. This sounds like just a boss, not necessarily a mentor”, yup, this is the situation in which a mentor thinks a mentee is a synonym for a minion. The only way to deal with this situation is to learn the art of being assertive. Read a book and watch you tube videos on negotiation/assertiveness training, ask other peers what are appropriate expectations in your field, and don’t hesitate to ask another mentor what they recommend. Almost everyone will have a mentor like this at least once, so you are bound to get a lot of helpful feedback if you ask.

‘Bully’ Mentor

The best mentors will tear you down BUT they will help build you up. The worst mentors will tear you down, beat you with a stick, and leave you for dead. This is a bully disguised as a mentor. Be careful – just because a mentor criticizes you doesn’t mean he/she is a ‘bully’ mentor. Critical feedback is a common and a necessary part of a mentor relationship. However, the “bully” mentor doesn’t give critical feedback. Instead, this mentor systematically victimizes his/her mentee, knowing the mentee is helpless due to being in a subordinate position. This mentor is extremely critical about a mentee’s abilities, skills, performance, behaviors, and even personal traits and qualities. He/she also does absolutely nothing to help the mentee improve weaknesses. If you feel continually beaten up by your mentor and feel powerless to change the situation, ask yourself exactly why you are maintaining this mentor relationship? Is there an alternative option, like seeking out a replacement mentor? Be cautious about how you leave this relationship too because your mentor may feel the need to badmouth you to others in an attempt to make him/herself look good and make you look like a incompetent mess. I’ve seen this happen to good friends and it’s a very unfair situation to experience and honestly the source for some people leaving academia, especially during graduate school.

‘Let’s be friends’ Mentor

Oh boy. This type of mentor can be very emotionally draining. Fun one minute, and aggravating the next – it’s a full on rollercoaster when a mentor wants to be friends with you, or more specifically, party with you. This seems to be particularly problematic for graduate students and their graduate advisors. You’re at a conference and your advisor wants to go to the bar with you, which sounds like it could be fun until someone ends up tipsy or drunk and says or does something that damages the professional relationship. My recommendation is know your boundaries and comfort level. Are you ok drinking with your mentor? Do you drink in general? Do you have the tendency to get drunk and embarrass yourself? Is your mentor known to be inappropriate when drinking or partying? Are you losing respect for your mentor because of the way he/she acts in a ‘party’ situation? Will your mentor use your behavior when going out against you later on? It’s ok to hang out (IMO) with a mentor, but beware; these are not your college frat-party friends. Even if they act like this, DO NOT act like him/her. It’s like the walk of shame. The next day is going to be awkward and filled with regrets.

‘Let’s be more than friends’ Mentor

I’m not even going to go into this one (that much). If you feel like your mentor is trying to make the moves on you, run, and run fast. It’s imperative you get out of this relationship quickly because the longer you’re in it the more likely you will get blackmailed or be in a no-win situation. A lot of mentees may tell themselves they are just imagining things or maybe misinterpreting their mentor’s behavior. Follow your intuition on this one. You’ll thank yourself when you’re a less naïve grownup.

One thing I want to make clear is that if your mentor fits into one of these ‘bad’ mentor types, it does not necessarily mean he/she is a bad mentor. No mentor is perfect, and it’s common to find flaws in even a stellar one. You can definitely work around some of these issues if you put in the effort. For instance, I’ve found it’s easy to have a ‘Let’s be friends’ mentor if you set firm boundaries early. You also might find that the ‘Re: Out of Office’ type of mentor can be useful when you need a recognizable person to put in a good word for you. However, some types, like the ‘Let’s be more then friends’ or ‘Bully’ mentors need to be eliminated immediately. As someone who has experienced all of the above types of mentors (ok, except the bully mentor – I’ve lucked out on that one), I definitely think you can work well with some, but need to run away from others.

Also, remember you are not perfect either (what?!), so it’s always wise to keep active, engaged communication with a mentor to make sure both of you are meeting expectations. Actually as a colleague pointed out to me recently, it’s important to have clear, concrete expectations and goals between you and your mentor in order to have the most fulfilling relationship on both ends. This is done best at the beginning of the relationship, so be thoughtful in what you want out of a mentor before you seek one out.

If you have any questions or comments that you want to keep discreet and not post on this site, please feel free to email me at Isabella.Lanza@csulb.edu. Good luck with all your mentor relationships!

The DOs and DON’Ts of Asking Professors for Recommendation Letters

How should you ask a professor for a letter of recommendation?

By Isabella Lanza, PhD

LettersFirst and foremost, this is intended to help undergrads at typical large universities, where close relationships with faculty are few and far between. When I was an undergrad at a very small liberal arts college (think 2,000 students small), it was quite easy to identify which professors could write you good letters and many of these professors expected you to ask. But what to do when you have to ask a professor and you haven’t had much interaction with him/her outside class hours? Here are some DOs and DON’Ts to think about as you prepare to ask a professor for a recommendation letter.

The DOs

  1. Identify all potential recommenders.

You should try to have about twice as many potential recommenders in mind than you actually need in order to give you some wiggle room (and less anxiety) if someone does not agree to write you a letter.

  1. Create a most-to-least preferred list.

Write down the names of those that you would like as a potential recommender. Now rank order those names in terms of whom you think will write you the strongest letter and ALSO who has the highest professional status for the programs you have chosen. Considering the status a recommender has in the field you’re planning to go into is important, and something that gets overlooked frequently. When I was a graduate student instructor I was asked many times to write letters of recommendation, and had to explain to students that my recommendation would weigh much less than a recommendation from a tenure-track faculty with research in the area of interest.

  1. Ask in an orderly fashion.

If you’re going to ask through email, don’t just send out the same email to all your potential recommenders at once. What if they all say yes? Ask one by one using your preference list. If you receive a no from someone early on, this will give you a chance to re-evaluate your method of asking before you move further down the list.

  1. Timing is everything.

Asking 6 weeks- 3 months ahead of time is generally the time frame professors like when planning out recommendation letters. Remember the less time you give a professor to write you a letter, the more likely they will say no to your request. Social psychology tells us that people are more likely to say yes to requests no matter what the nature if the task is far into the future.

  1. Take the time to either write a convincing email to your recommenders or visit their office hours/make an appointment to discuss the possibility of having them write a letter.

A two sentence email asking for a letter or a 30-second request made in person after class when other students have questions are not appropriate ways to ask for a recommendation. Show that you are serious about your future academic and career goals by asking for a personal meeting or coming to office hours to explore the possibility. If you can’t speak to the professor in person, write a thoughtful email. Either way, make sure you present 1) your career goals; 2) programs/school you anticipate applying to; 3) application deadlines; 4) WHY you think the professor could provide you with a good letter.

  1. Identify 2-3 strengths that you would like your recommenders to point out in their letters.

The first time I brought this up to my professional development students a few of them stated, ‘But you can’t tell a recommender what to put in your letter!’ Well I’m here to let you know that not only can you, but you should. The key is to present strengths, abilities, or other positive features about yourself that the professor has actually observed. Professors will appreciate that you are identifying a few positive attributes that they can expand on in their letter. With many students to attend to, our minds need a little help remembering all the things that make you great. Of course, be careful not to overstate your capabilities or strengths. I have found very few students overestimate themselves, so don’t worry too much about appearing arrogant.

  1. Prepare a document/package with all the information your professor needs.

Whether it’s over email or a hard copy, prepare one document/package your professor can quickly reference. This should include a list of the schools and programs you are applying to with deadlines, along with physical addresses of the programs (needed for the letter heading). Also, include a brief bio with career objectives and strengths you would like highlighted. Last, make sure you include all the information needed to send out the letters (weblinks or envelopes already addressed and stamped).

  1. Ask the professor ahead of time if he/she will want a reminder when the deadline approaches.

If you are going to feel anxious about the possibility that letters are not going to be sent out on time, ask your professor early on in the process if he/she would like email deadline reminders. Setting this up early on will make your life easier when you remember that your professor wanted a reminder email vs. just sending a reminder and hoping you don’t come off as annoying.

  1. Send the professor a thank you card.

A simple thank you card (not email!) can go a long way with anyone, especially someone that has devoted his/her career to teaching and mentoring others. Include a sentence or two stating your appreciation for their time and effort given to not just the letter but also enhancing your learning experience. Your legacy will live on longer when you express your gratitude with an actual handwritten card. Also, if you are going to give the professor a gift (the thank you card is completely sufficient but I know some students insist on gifts) wait until all letters have been sent; otherwise, it is an ethical dilemma.

  1. Keep in touch.

Besides letting professors know the outcome of the application process, send an email every now and then to let them know what you have accomplished professionally. Professors gain a deep sense of satisfaction knowing former students are achieving their career goals.


  1. Don’t just ask a professor because you received an A in his/her class.

With grade inflation running rampant, half or maybe more than half of your peers are receiving As. You really need to think about what makes you stand out from your peers in the class (or situation) the professor knows you from. If you don’t stand out in some way, this is a problem.

  1. Don’t ask a professor if he/she may not know who you are.

Yes, this happens. If you’re not sure if this applies to you, that’s a red flag right there. But if you want to confirm, try to visit the professor’s office hours and see his/her response to you. Is it an ‘Oh hi! How are you doing?’ or ‘ Hello. How can I help you?’ You’ll be able to tell right away if they have no clue.

  1. Don’t ask a professor just because he/she is nice or cool.

Big mistake. I’m known to be a very nice and friendly professor, but it doesn’t mean that I’m going to write you a good letter of recommendation. I’m judging you on your performance and effort. A nice/cool professor may be super friendly to ALL students, but behind closed office doors he/she is only writing superb recommendations for a few students. Keep this in mind: looks can be deceiving.

  1. Don’t ask a professor if you never said a word in class.

This should be self-explanatory, but apparently it’s not. If you were in a class with 40 or fewer students and never said a word in class or to your professor, the professor is going to assume you were not as engaged in the class as those who did speak up or came regularly to office hours. If you are shy about speaking class, visit the professor’s office hours more often. Also, discuss the reasons you are not as outspoken – you’ll be seen as making a greater effort to be an engaged student.

  1. Don’t ask for a letter to be written with less than three weeks notice.

I tell my students in my professional developmental seminar that poor planning will lead to an irate professor writing your letter. He/she may think you’re smart, ambitious, and ready for grad school, but your lack of planning also suggests you may not be as serious or prepared for what’s to come. There is a general consensus that 6 weeks – 3 months is an ideal amount of time to give professors notice that you would like them to write a letter for you. I personally prefer 2 months notice and no less than 3 weeks notice.

  1. Don’t ask for a letter to be written during finals.

No, just don’t. Do I even have to state why? You know how you’re going crazy in a sleep deprived state studying for 4 finals, 3 papers, and getting in some work shifts? Professors are also under a mountain of grading and stress to get other things done related to research or departmental tasks. There is no worse time to ask, so don’t even try!

  1. Don’t ask too early!

This is an odd don’t. It’s an issue I didn’t think I would ever encounter, but in the last year I’ve had two students ask me to write letters for applications 1-2 years away. I’m not sure what the cutoff is for asking ‘too early’ but I’m going to say past 6 months is a bit odd. If you’re close to the professor it might not be weird to ask way ahead of time, but for the majority of you breathe and remember that ‘patience is a virtue’.

  1. Don’t send an email for each letter to be written.

You are likely to be one of several students your professor is writing letters for in a given semester, so keep your communication with the professor minimal. One email (or one packet) detailing all the information needed to write and send out the letters is greatly appreciated. It’s great to have just one email or document to go back to for each student. Be as organized as possible. It will go a long way and make your letter that much better, especially when your professor is comparing you to less organized peers.

  1. Don’t be a stalker.

Yes, you want to make sure your professor is sending those letters out and on time(!), but tone down the frequency and severity of reminders. One email reminder a few days before the deadline is ok if you think the professor would appreciate a reminder. Some professors find them annoying, or even insulting. I like reminders, but only ONE. You could also just check-in once and kindly ask if anything else is needed to finish the letter. It’s a gentle way of reminding the professor to write and send out the letter. Bottom line: don’t overdo it!

  1. Don’t do the ‘wham, bam thank you ma’am’.

I can’t remember the last time a student wrote me about the outcome of his/her application process. I want to know what happened! Even if it’s not positive news, it’s still wise to send an update email to a recommender, especially if you are going to ask for a letter again. (2018 update: I’m happy to say most students now make contact with me to let me know the outcome of their application process. I hope this is a sign that students are becoming more savvy in sustaining professional relationships.)

We hope these tips will help as you prepare to ask for recommendation letters. Good luck!

Welcome to the RHAYA Lab Blog!

cropped-road.jpgHi friends,

We’re looking forward to bringing you some great bits of information on successfully maneuvering through academia. So whether you’re an undergrad experiencing all the college ‘firsts’ or thinking about applying to grad school, a grad student trying to overcome the grueling challenges imposed by your program, a postdoc with jobs on the brain, or a junior faculty breathing all things tenure, we’ve got you covered. Stay tuned for our blogs dedicated to extraordinary people in academia – like yourself!