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.
should your Recommendation Letter Address?
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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
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.
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.
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.
Elements of Good Recommendation Letters
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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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