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Recommendation Letters

Your recommendations are important because they verify your claims and provide the admissions committee an opportunity to learn more about you from people you have worked closely with. Hence, good recommendations can serve as a powerful tool to ‘sell’ yourself to the committee.

What should your Recommendation Letter Address?

Academic Excellence
Your achievements in your undergraduate program should be addressed in detail. Quantifying statements like “one of the top three students” is particularly insightful. The admissions committee is looking for candidates with strong analytical and quantitative skills. Your recommendation letter should address these skills along with your intellectual curiosity, creativity, imagination and ability to think “out of the box”.

Projects & Achievements
At least one of your recommendation letters should mention the projects that you did during your undergraduate program. Graduate programs in engineering and sciences are specialized programs and any projects that you may have done in a similar field in your bachelor degree would add a lot of value to your profile. Your letters should also mention some of the good grades that you got in the course taught by the recommender.

Research Aptitude
Your recommendation letter should mention demonstrate your research aptitude and abilities. If you have been research-oriented, particular emphasis should be given to your research/publications. The academia loves students with research interests. Make sure you leverage this factor in your recommendation letter. This will be very helpful if you are applying for research assistantships.

Interpersonal Skills
Your recommendation letter should demonstrate your ability to work well under stressful conditions. It should address your interpersonal skills, team spirit and ability to work well with others. Your dedication, motivation and thoughtfulness should be adequately addressed. It is also important to address your oral and written communication skills. This would be helpful if you are applying for a teaching assistantship.


Choosing Your Recommenders

Most schools require 2-3 recommendation letters. For candidates applying right out of undergraduate programs, all your recommendation letters should be from professors. If you worked for a company as a summer intern, you could take one letter from your immediate supervisor. For candidates applying after work experience, you should try and get  atleast two letters from your professors. You can get the third one from your immediate supervisor or someone you have worked closely with. Here are a few other things to keep in mind about choosing recommenders:

  • Choose people who know you well. Rather than choosing a famous professor who has no intimate knowledge of your skills and abilities, it is much more powerful to use a person who can illustrate your strengths and show you at your best. For candidates who have performed research, leverage the strong relationship you built with the professor to get your recommendation.

  • Choose people who really like you. It is important that a recommender invests time in writing your recommendation. A person who likes you will take out the time as well as put a positive spin on your qualities.

  • Choose people who can address more than one key criteria: your academic caliber, your intellectual ability, team work, maturity, work ethics etc. For example, a professor under whom you did a project or a professor who taught you a course in which you scored high.

  • Give your recommender an outline of the assignments/projects that you worked on. Include in that outline some suggestions on how he/she might address specific issues such as analytical ability, integrity, intellectual curiosity etc.


Critical Elements of Good Recommendation Letters

  • The recommendation letter should provide specific examples to illustrate the points. For example, a statement such as “James has good interpersonal skills” is no good unless supported by why and how he is good. It is important to provide a frame of reference and description of specific situations as much as possible.

  • The recommendation letter should reflect substantial thought and effort. It should show you as a distinctive candidate. This can be done by use of examples, comparison with peers if available, or quantifying claims whenever possible. For example, saying “One of the top 3 students in a class of 100” is more powerful than saying one of the best students in the class.

  • Last but not the least; the recommendation letter should be well written and grammatically correct. It should reflect the thinking of a well-educated person. International students, whose recommenders may not be fluent in English, should assist the recommenders as much as possible. It may be a good idea to draft the recommendation letter to help the recommender.


Common Mistakes in Recommendation Letters

  • Do not get your recommendation from a ‘hot shot’ who does not have intimate knowledge of your abilities. The admissions committee is not impressed by the recommender’s title or reputation.

  • Some recommenders write really nice things about you but without providing convincing evidence. It is your responsibility to make sure you provide your recommender with a draft of your assignments and projects that can help support his statements.


Common Dilemma

There are many situations in which the recommender will ask you to fill out the recommendation forms as well as write the letter. This is not uncommon. Some recommenders don’t want to take out the time to answer 8-10 questions and fill out the forms. Particularly, if you are applying to 3-4 schools, that means 3-4 different recommendation letters addressing different questions. In such situations, it would be best to write one comprehensive letter of recommendation and change the name and address of schools on top. Most schools look for similar information. In addition, the admissions committee understands that the candidates have limited control over the recommendations and will not penalize you for not answering in their format.

If you are writing your own recommendation (as per your professor/supervisor), please bear in mid that it is very easy for the admissions committee to identify based on your writing style, grammar, voice etc. If you are forced to write your own letters, encourage the recommender to provide some assistance with the language so that it will not be an obvious applicant recommendation letter.

If you find yourself in a situation where you have to write all your recommendations, formatting them differently would help camouflage the fact that you wrote them all. For example, format one as a letter and another in question-and-answer format. Use different typefaces and font sizes. Ask a friend to change the language.


A Word of Caution

Don’t try to forge your recommendations. Even if you end up writing your own, make sure that the finished product is verified and signed by the recommender. Most schools send acknowledgement cards to your recommenders.

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