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Why Letter of Recommendation (LOR)?

Getting into a top notch graduate program is one of the best things you can do for a better career and successful life ahead.

Schools just don’t want to rely on grades, test scores and resumes as a means of determining the quality of your application. They want to see how well others speak about your work ethic, experience, intelligence and personality. They would like to see how well professors, past and present employers, and other academic faculty feel about your credentials and abilities.

Letters of Recommendation are required for almost every graduate school application and are a very important part of the application process.

Usually, when it comes to your application, grades and test scores factor in most heavily. However, your letters of recommendation could be the deciding factor in the admission process.

Many top graduate schools ask candidates to send in at least two to three letters of recommendation along with their graduate school application. Some universities may also provide templates to use for writing a graduate school letter of recommendation.

Whom to ask for recommendation?

If your target school requires you to send letters of recommendation, you better ask the right people to write your recommendations.

Do not ask professors, former supervisors or other individuals with whom you did not develop a serious relationship.

Most professors will not write a letter of recommendation if they do not know you well enough to vouch for your academics.You don’t want to ask your supervisor, who you barely know, for a recommendation. You may want to avoid asking your uncle as he may not be able to write much about you in a professional capacity. The family connection also downplays the value of this recommendation in the eyes of the committee as there is always a chance of bias.

You should have known your recommenders for at least six months to a year before asking them for a recommendation. There is a strong likelihood that if someone agrees to right you a letter of recommendation that he will speak highly of you.

The best letter writers are those that know you well and can provide an evaluation of your ability to perform and succeed at the graduate level.

Graduate and professional school admissions people tell us the following make the best letter writers:

  1. Someone who knows you well
  2. Someone with the title of “Professor”
  3. Someone who is a professor at the school granting your baccalaureate degree
  4. Someone who has earned the degree, which you are seeking in your graduate work
  5. Someone with an advanced degree, who has supervised you in a job or internship aligned with the graduate program you are pursuing (e.g., Public Health, Social Work, Business Administration, etc.)
  6. Someone who has academically evaluated you in an upper-division class
  7. Letters from family, friends, and the like are discouraged and, in fact, may be detrimental

If you want to seriously strengthen your graduate school application, you should seek recommendations from individuals who have a longstanding history and reputation within a university and/or community.

Politicians, published professors, prominent lawyers and other civic leaders are also good sources of recommendations.

This is not to discount relatively unknown people, but there is a strong likelihood a graduate program will like your application if a high profile individual has written a letter of recommendation for you.

Finally and most importantly when soliciting someone to write a letter of recommendation, it is important to let these individuals know what your educational intentions are, the program you are applying to and other key pieces of information that they can use to write the best letter of recommendation possible.

Get your recommenders to write about different things

If you are going to get LORs from two of your professors, they should write about two different aspects of your personality, achievements and academic potential. Here are two possible ways for those professors to write about you:

  1. Professor 1 can talk about your achievements during your project. For example, your project led to a patent filing or your project was commercialized to a product worth $10 million in yearly sales.
  2. Professor 2 can write about your classroom performance. For example, you were a hard-working and sincere student and were among top 10% of your class.


Give your recommender at least a month

Approaching your recommender at the last minute and forcing him to write your recommendation would get you a weak LOR that would lower your chances of admission. Your recommenders need enough time to study and analyze your candidature, and eventually write an impressive and convincing recommendation letter.

Plan your application process so that you give your recommender at least one month to submit the recommendation.

Tips for Indian students

In our experience, many of the schools are skeptical of LORs from Indian students.

Admission team members at those schools evaluate thousands of applications and LORs during each admission session.  Most of them have been evaluating applications for years and are very good at detecting if the same person has written the essay or statement of purpose and letters of recommendation. They can also find out if the recommendation is shallow and fake.They can also clearly see inconsistencies between what is being said in essays or statement of purpose and letter of recommendation.

So, don’t hinder your otherwise strong application with a questionable letter of recommendation. Don’t write your letter of recommendation – you will compromise your chances of a successful admission, especially at the top schools.

If your professor or supervisor doesn’t have the time to write your recommendation or if they are not sure what to write about you, you can refer to the section above – Whom to ask for recommendation, again. Perhaps you have not chosen the right individuals to recommend you. In these cases, don’t focus on their designations, as what they write about you matters a whole lot more.

Spend some time shortlisting your recommenders. Explain to them why a genuine recommendation is important for your graduation application. Share the tips and samples that I am going to write about and ask them for a couple of hours of their time to write a recommendation letter for you.

How to write a Letter of Recommendation?

Unless specified, an LOR is a 400-600 word letter, which tells the reader about your strengths and weakness, or rather, areas of improvements.

The LOR should mention the nature of association that you have with your recommender.

LOR on letterhead: Most of the universities require this letter to be on the official letterhead. If you are getting a recommendation from your professor, tell him to write it on his university’s official letter head. On the other hand, if your supervisor is writing a recommendation, she should write on her company’s official letter head. In case your supervisor has moved to a new company, she can write on the letterhead of her new company.

Substantiate with examples: Your recommender should substantiate all his observations about you with appropriate examples and evidence, preferably backed with data. For example, rather than writing “you were the best student in the class”, your recommender should write “you were consistently among the top 10% of your class for all fours years of your undergraduate program”.

Don’t miss areas of improvements: Going beyond praising you, your recommender should also write some areas of improvements as nobody is perfect. They should avoid writing generic and shallow areas of improvement such as, “Being a perfectionist, he ends up pressurizing himself as well as his team members”.

Avoid dry tone: Although an LOR is a formal document, your recommender should maintain a level of warmth while writing it. They can use your full name at the beginning of the LOR, followed by your first name wherever needed in the rest of the draft, is far better than addressing you as “The candidate”.

How to submit Letter of Recommendation?

Submitting your LOR  depends on the school that you are applying to. Every school has specifics about the manner in which they need a recommendation letter.

Confidentiality is of utmost importance when submitting LOR. The recommender is either required to directly contact the school admission office or you must send the drafts in tamper-proof sealed envelopes.

Here are the most common ways to submit your LOR:

#1 Online Submission

Your target school may ask you to specify the name and email of your recommender on their online application portal. Once done, your recommender would receive an email with a URL to answer a few questions about you.

The instructions to write your recommendation would be pretty straightforward and easy to follow. There may be some word limit – 200 to 400 words – for each question. There may also be an option to save the draft recommendation and submit later, once your recommender has answered all the questions.

#2 Email Submission

Many schools require the Recommendation Letters to be emailed to the schools’ Admission Office by the recommenders from their official email ids.

Your recommender may need to mention your application number in the email subject. The recommendation letter should be on the letterhead of the recommender – university’s or company’s letterhead – with the signature of the recommender.

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