Graduate School

Recommendation Letters for 50-something Grad School Applicant

Question: Thanks for this site. I am in my early 50´s and am intending to return to grad school (in Composition), perhaps at a major university. What type of recommendation letters will they expect from me?

Congrats to you on your plans to return to school. However, your question about recommendations is one that you will have to ask at each university to which you reply, because the answer can vary from school to school. I’m in my 50’s, too (although about to move out of them :-() and I know that most of my undergraduate profs and deans are now retired … or worse. So it would be impossible to track down anyone from that era who could write in my support. If you haven’t taken any colleges classes as a “grown up,” you may be in a similar spot.


In lieu of undergrad recommendations, your graduate school admission committees may ask you to provide a letter from someone who is familiar with your more recent musical accomplishments (conductor, collaborator, instructor, etc.). You may also be asked for a personal, character reference from someone who knows you well (e.g., an employer). If you feel that the required references won’t show off your strongest sides, you can also provide additional unsolicited recommendations, although you’d be wise to limit these to two.

So your first step is to narrow down your list of “target colleges.’ Their Web sites or application materials should provide instructions on seeking references. If these aren’t apt for you (e.g., they’re looking for undergrad profs … now long-gone), don’t hesitate to contact the college directly and ask for other options. It’s possible, however, that if you’ve been out of school a long time, the admission officials may suggest that you take a class or two at a local college (as an non-matriculated student) to not only provide them with current recommendations but also to ease your transition back to academic life.

Good luck to you as you navigate this new path.

(posted 9/17/2011)