Letters of recommendation: Leave nothing to chance
As you prepare your applications for study programs abroad – whether bachelors, masters or MBA – you are likely focused on your personal essays, college selection and standardized testing. Each of these is an extremely important part of the application process and should not be overlooked. However, another critical aspect of your application will be the letter of recommendation (LOR). Do not make the mistake of thinking that all you need to do is request an LOR and the recommender will do the rest. Your LOR, like everything else, requires planning and attention from you.
Why are LORs important?
Carefully cultivating your recommendation letter is important because it is a third party endorsement of you and also often serves as a corroboration of other parts of your application. US undergraduate admissions officers say that that recommendation is the single-most influential factor in admissions decisions at selective colleges. So take these letters seriously by going beyond a simple request and giving your recommender some orientation to the process and why the letters are important. Every recommender is open to varying levels of input, but some things you can do in any case are including your resume with you request and scheduling a brief meeting to give some background to your application and answer any questions the recommender may have. Make sure that your recommender understands what you have done in your job or school and also comprehends the impact of your activities. Also make sure they know your future plans; if they know that your future goals lie in a particular industry or course, they can recommend you within that context.
What should an LOR say?
Recommendation letters are more than simply praises of the applicant. They need to be specific and give relevant, detailed examples. For example, a letter cannot simply say “student loves literature and is an avid reader” instead it should give specific examples: “student is able to relate literary concepts across a range of genres. Her identification of the motifs of self-sacrifice in both Hemingway and Steinbeck demonstrates rare insight among students of American literature for her age.” In addition to specific examples, LORs should corroborate claims you have made in other parts of your application. If an MBA applicant writes an essay about a challenging project which saved the company millions, the recommender should also mention the accomplishment represented in that scope of work. Similarly if you have worked at an NGO or spend your free time running marathons, it is helpful if your recommender can acknowledge this so the admissions committee knows the claims are true – you’re not just fluffing up your application.
Who to ask
For undergraduate applicants, a school counsellor and/or core academic teacher who had taught you in the final two years of school should write recommendations. It is preferable to get recommendations from your math, science or English teachers. Social studies, foreign language or art teachers are also possible but do not request letters from sports coaches or activity teachers.
For post-graduate applicants, your request will depend on your program and how long you have been out of college. Usually, academic post-graduate programs will require a letter from one of your former college professors, whereas for professional post-grad programs you may need a letter from an employer if relevant.
MBA applicants need to get recommendation letters from immediate supervisors or someone they have worked under within the past two years. Do not get a letter from the head of the firm if you have never worked directly with him/her. It is more important that the recommender knows you well, rather than has the most impressive title.
Should I submit additional letters
If you have been very involved in an activity outside school, college or work and you’ve developed a relationship with seniors who may be able to speak to your dedication, hard work and quality of your character, then a letter from him/her might supplement your application. However, do check with the college or program where you are applying about how they prefer to receive such letters and follow their instructions. For example for undergraduates, additional recommenders can often be invited through the Common Application directly.
Writing your own letters
Often those who are asked to write letters are very busy or don’t feel they know what needs to be written, so they ask you to write the letter yourself and they will sign off on it. Please DO NOT do this. If there is suspicion around your letters for any reason it could sink your application. It’s not worth the risk. There are both obvious and subtle reasons why you should not write your own LORs, but if you feel that your recommender simply won’t budge, you could ask a friend, parent or another colleague to write the letter so that at least a different voice is reflected in the tone. Give the person some bullet points and ask them to write in their own voice.