How to Get Letters of Recommendation for an MFA Application

Many MFA candidates struggle with how to get a letter of recommendation from for their graduate school application.

43 min. video

Find out who you can ask for a letter, and the etiquette surrounding that request.

Discussion by Art Prof Clara Lieu and Teaching Artist Lauryn Welch.

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BBQ Squid: Mixed Media Acrylic Painting

Video Walkthrough

  • Recommenders have to be someone in the art world, but they don’t necessarily have to be a professor.
  • A curator, an artist colleague, someone you worked with at an arts organization would be fine, as long as they are familiar with your studio practice.
  • Recommenders need to be familiar with your current studio practice, if it’s been many years since you spoke to your recommender, you’ll need to update them on what you are doing right now.
  • If you don’t know anyone to ask to write your letter, it’s important to develop professional relationships.
  • Professional relationships don’t happen overnight, they take time and effort to develop.
  • Developing a professional relationship is not just about getting a letter of recommendation; it’s critical to your growth as an artist, and will help you well beyond your degree program.
  • Even small gestures matter: a casual visit to your professor’s class, emailing them to update them on your progress, talking to them for a few minutes after class, etc.
  • Asking to be a professor’s Teaching Assistant is a great way to deepen your relationship beyond you having been in their class.
  • Other ways to foster professional relationships are most effective when they can happen in person.
  • Go to open studios events and meet artists in person, you never know where that might lead!
  • People tend to remember in person interactions much more than online ones.
  • Attend an artist lecture, do a workshop in person, go to a professional conference.
  • Most conferences are a few days, so it’s very easy to meet people and then meet up again while the conference is still going.
  • There is no specific time period you need to know your recommender, it depends on the depth of your interactions and whether you have a good rapport with the recommender.
  • Sometimes a 6 week intensive summer program is sufficient in terms of developing a relationship with a recommender.
  • Ask for a letter well in advance, at least month.
  • Don’t assume when you ask, that you are guaranteed a letter! A recommender has to feel comfortable that they know enough about your practice, and that they can speak enthusiastically on your behalf.
  • Make it easy for your recommender: provide a school list, a list of deadlines, and get all of your email requests from the schools to them as soon as you can.
  • It’s okay to follow up a letter a week before the deadline, it’s a good reminder for your recommender.
  • However, don’t be demanding, or insist on things done in a specific way, or on a specific day.
  • Say thank you to your recommender! We remember the people who don’t bother to say thank you.
  • A letter of recommendation is not the same as a reference.
  • A letter of recommendation is for degree program applications, and a few grants. (it’s not that common for a grant to require letters)
  • A reference is more for job applications, where they want your recommender’s contact information if they want to speak to them on the phone, or communicate via email.
  • Make sure you get permission from a recommender to put them down as a reference!
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