Letters of Recommendation: Leave Nothing to Chance

Letters of Recommendation: Leave Nothing to Chance | The Red Pen

As you prepare your applications to study abroad–whether bachelor’s, master’s or MBA–you are likely focused on your personal essays, college selection and standardised 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 your recommender to write your LOR and they will do the rest. This document, like everything else, requires planning and attention.

Why are LORs important?

It is important to carefully cultivate your recommendation letter as it is a third party endorsement of you and also often serves as 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. Take these letters seriously by going beyond a simple request. Instead, orient your recommender to the process and why the letters are important. Every recommender is open to varying levels of input, but you should include your resume with your request and schedule a brief meeting to give the recommender some background to your application and answer any questions they may have. Make sure they understand what you have done in your job or school and comprehend the impact of your activities. Explain your future plans to them; if they know that your future goals lie in a particular industry or course, they can recommend you within that context.

What should your LOR say?

Recommendation letters go beyond simply praising the applicant. They need to be specific and include relevant, detailed examples of behaviours. For example, a letter cannot simply say, “Applicant X loves literature and is an avid reader”. Instead, it should say, “Applicant X 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 that saved their company millions, the recommender should also represent the accomplishment in that scope of work. Similarly, if you have worked at an NGO or spend your free time running marathons, your recommender can acknowledge this so the admissions committee knows the claims are true–you’re not just fluffing up your application.

Whom should you ask for your LOR?

For undergraduate applicants, a school counsellor and/or core academic teacher who has taught you in the final two years of school should write recommendations. It is preferable to receive recommendations from your maths, science or English teachers. Social studies, foreign language or art teachers are also options, however, do not request letters from sports coaches or activity teachers.

For postgraduate applicants, your request will depend on your programme and how long you have been out of college. Usually, academic postgraduate programmes will require a letter from one of your former college professors, whereas, for professional postgraduate programmes, you may require a letter from an employer, if relevant.

MBA applicants need to provide recommendation letters from immediate supervisors or someone they have worked under within the past two years. Do not request a letter from the head of the firm if you have never worked directly with them. It is more important for the recommender to know you well, rather than possess 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 character, then a letter from them might supplement your application. However, check with the college or programme 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.

Can I write my own LOR?

Often, those who are asked to write recommendations are busy or may not feel they know what needs to be written. They may ask you to write the letter yourself and they will sign off on it. DO NOT do this. If there is suspicion around your letters for any reason, it could sink your application. It’s simply not worth the risk. While there are both obvious and subtle reasons why you should not write your own LORs, if you feel that your recommender won’t budge, you could ask a friend, parent or another colleague to write the letter so that a different voice is reflected in the tone. Give the person some bullet points and ask them to write in their own voice.

If you need further guidance, get in touch with us.

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