Your Letter of Recommendation, or LOR, as it is popularly known, is an indispensable element of your application. Whether you’re a student applying to colleges for your undergraduate studies, someone applying for specialized graduate studies, or a professional looking to switch jobs, a LOR, or a reference letter is your key to a successful application.
Unfortunately, such a critical application element is heavily misunderstood in our country. A LOR is not just any other letter that an applicant may ask someone to write for them. Quite contrarily, a good letter of recommendation is structured, strategic, and specially curated for the applicant, based on the nature of study they’re going forward with, and the school(s) they’re applying to. In case of a job application, the contents of the letter will be a factor of the company and the profile the applicant is applying for.
If you’re someone who is in the process of writing a LOR, or is going to write one soon, you’re in good company, and should definitely read on. I will also cover some points that you should keep a check on if you’re writing your own letter of recommendation.
What is a Letter of Recommendation?
A letter of Recommendation can be simply described as a personalized document, in which the referee strategically evaluates an individual’s traits, characteristics, abilities & talents with respect to a particular objective, often in a decisive manner.
Sounds heavy, right? Let’s look at a couple of elements that constitute this definition:
Personalized document – A LOR is of course, a written pro forma about the individual you are writing it for, from your personalized point of view. It also implies that every word that you write may contribute to the opinion that an admissions committee member/ recruiter has formed about the applicant. (No pressure!)
Referee strategically evaluates – A LOR is an opportunity to get your thoughts and point of view across. The reader doesn’t wish to know the obvious about the candidate, they primarily want to know an objective, third-party point-of-view about how the candidate is in their work/ academic setting. Writing a LOR is also quite a strategic process, as you will have to carefully curate, plan, and execute the process of writing it.
Traits, characteristics, abilities, and talents – A LOR is more than an individual’s work/academic practices and demonstrated record, which of course takes the center spot. A good letter of recommendation talks about characteristics, capabilities, and skills that make the individual unique, and how these particular traits indicate future potential.
Particular objective – A LOR talks about the skills, characteristics, and capabilities in the context of a specific task that a candidate may be required to do in the course of their studies/work.
Decisive manner – One must also appreciate the fact that a LOR often leads to an intended action – be it forming an impression about the applicant, or getting an idea about their skills. The writer hence, must take care of the same, and facilitate this action.
There are a lot of myths that surround letters of recommendation. Let’s look at the most prominent ones, and break them with solid, crystal clear clarity of what LORs are (and what they aren’t).
Myths about Letters of Recommendation
1. The magic of the CEO!
Myth: A letter from the top-most official of the organization (principal, if you’re a student) can work wonders!
Reality: The LOR is a document that talks about your work, ambitions, performance, skills, potential, and traits unique to you. It should ideally be written by an individual that you have worked with very closely. An individual, even if they’re at the top, cannot (and mostly will not) vouch for your credibility and everything you stand for, if they don’t know you, understand you, and appreciate you. Your reporting officer or even a peer, who can convince the reader of your sincerity and value system, is a much better choice.
The choice of your referee can make a lasting impact. Keep reading to find out how to select a referee who will make a difference to your application.
2. It’s all academic!
Myth: A LOR is just academic. I should get my professor to write it for me.
Reality: An utter lie! A LOR may or may not be academic, depending upon the objective behind your letter. If you’re making a job switch, would a letter from your class 12 English teacher, describing your stellar performance in the subject, help? No, of course not! The nature of your LOR is completely contingent on the context. Keep in mind questions such as- Who is reading your letter? Who is writing it for you? What is the purpose of the letter?
3. Big words help!
Myth: It helps if my letter is very articulate and flowery.
Reality: Your letter needs to be structured, and grammatically correct. There are no two ways about it. This, however, does not necessarily imply that the letter should resemble a page taken straight out of a novel. A lot depends on the writer’s individual style, and the impression they wish to create for the reader. If at all you wish to use jargon, be very cautious about it. There are only a few cases where it works! Read my take on how your letter should sound in the following sections, to get the tone of the letter right.
4. LORs are all goody good!
Myth: Only praises and good things are supposed to be entered into a letter of recommendation.
Reality: The content of a LOR depends on the objective behind the letter, and often on the writer as well. It’s a folly to assume that a LOR is just supposed to talk about nice things. A LOR is supposed to be candid, and honest, if you feel it makes sense to mention a developmental need that the admissions committee/recruiters should think about, go ahead and write it as it lends more credibility to the letter.
How to Write a Good (Great) Letter of Recommendation
Before going any further, you must come to terms with two words – writer & applicant. The applicant is someone who is applying for a study program, or a job change, while the writer is the person writing the letter of recommendation.
Now, the whole purpose of a LOR is to bring an independent, third-party point-of-view. However, it is neither uncommon nor unheard of, for individuals to be writing their own letters. If you fall into this category, and your professor/ manager has asked you to write your own letter, it’s imperative that you develop a strong sense of self, and be able to project it as someone else’s words. It is exactly here, that you must consult an expert, who can craft an apt strategy for your letters.
What Needs to be Included in a Letter of Recommendation?
As a general measure, a writer must keep a check on the following elements, which make for a great letter of recommendation.
As a writer, you must be absolutely clear on what the letter is asking you about the applicant. It is very important to understand the nature of the LOR. There are a couple of questions that a LOR asks, and seeks answers for.
- How long and in what capacity have you known the applicant?
- What distinguishes the applicant from his/her peers?
- What does the applicant hope to achieve in his/her life?
- How fit is the applicant for the program/position they’ve applied for?
- Are there any specific instances where you noticed this fit?
- What are some of the skills that the applicant is good at?
- What is your assessment of the applicant’s work and interpersonal aspects?
- How does the applicant compare to other similar applicants you have taught/ managed?
- What is your assessment about the applicant’s future potential?
- To what extent would you recommend the candidate for this program/position?
- Would you be comfortable answering additional questions in support of the candidate’s application?
A LOR resembles any other letter in its structure. It should be addressed to the reader, include an opening statement (generally describing the intent behind writing the letter and the capacity in which you’re doing so), followed by the body of the letter and a concluding statement. This is important, as it eases the aesthetics of the letter and presents it as an organized document, as opposed to a pile of content. A good structure also implies sound understanding of writing, often contributing to the credibility of the writer.
I’ve maintained this a couple of times already. The content of your LOR rests on the objective with which you write the letter. Understand what the letter is typically asking you and answer it crisply. Be candid, often citing examples, and talk in detail about things. It is advisable to first make pointers of your content, and then put it into words. A letter meant for a future job will, of course, talk more about the work ethics, performance, and domain-specific insights the candidate has showcased; as opposed to a letter meant for undergraduate studies, which will be heavy on the applicant’s academic credibility.
Sound grammar and appropriate positioning of content is a mandatory element of the LOR. Too flowery a language can be held against your application. What if your manager writes a letter heavy on technical jargon for your graduate studies, while the admissions committee is not very competent with that particular area of study? While the letter itself, might be ingenious, if it fails to make the reader register information, it can very well be a recipe for disaster. It is here that you might want to be very careful about what you write, and how you write it, for what you write might be different from how the reader interprets it.
This is the element that segregates great application letters from the good ones. A story weaves the different paragraphs together and captures the interest of the reader. If incorporated smartly, it can connect with the reader on a much deeper level, and could very well be the defining dimension to your entire application. It’s difficult to merge structure with story, but here’s where a smart strategy comes into play.
The tone of your letter makes a whole lot of difference. A writer should be humble, descriptive, and at the same time should sound mature. Here are some of the pointers that will help you get the tone right.
- Use formal language – Even though the LOR gives you the flexibility to mention specific instances, please don’t forget that it’s a formal document.
- Don’t go overboard with examples – It’s good to be specific about certain things, but as a writer, you might want to be generic in approach, unless asked specifically to do so.
- Maintain a friendly tone – Open a dialogue, and introduce yourself. The reader doesn’t know you, however don’t step overboard with it.
Neutrality is your key here. Even if you wish to rave about the applicant’s skills and potential, or pitch a red flag with respect to their developmental need, do so subtly.
Who to Ask for a Letter of Recommendation?
Identifying your referee is the first step towards a great LOR. Although schools do mention if they want academic references or professional ones, or a mixture of the two, knowing which professor’s/ manager’s recommendation to get matters the most.
Here are some of the pointers that will help you select your ideal referee:
1. Select someone who knows you, and appreciates the things you have done. Even if this person is not your HOD, principal, or the CEO of your company, but can speak very well about the work you have done and the value system you stand for, it’s a better option.
2. Do not seek a letter of recommendation from a family member/ friend/ acquaintance with whom you’re personally related. Doing so might introduce bias in the letter, which might distort the whole point of seeking a LOR.
3. If you’re a school student seeking a LOR for your undergraduate education, you may ask your subject teachers (for subjects you have fared well in, and for which the teacher has known you for over a year), a hobby teacher – sports, arts, design, theatre, dance – if you’re particularly talented, and if you’re applying for a degree in an allied discipline. You may also seek
You may also seek a LOR from your Principal, or Vice Principal, if they know you very well and can vouch for all your academic, co-curricular, and leadership capabilities. Doing so is highly encouraged if you’re involved in many leadership initiatives of the school.
4. If you’re a college student applying to graduate study/ business/ law/ medicine programs, you may ask your professor(s), especially the ones whose subjects are in direct link with the choice of your study. Say you’re applying for a Master’s of Law program, then professors of legal theory, criminal law, or the specialization you’re applying for, might write a more detailed letter, as compared to your HOD of the law programs, who has very little contact with you. A professor who has mentored you on a project or a dissertation is even better a choice, for they have seen your work outside the class, and can write a more interesting letter.
5. If you’re a professional looking to pursue a specialized graduate/business/ law/ medicine program, you should approach your immediate managers, supervisors, or people who have directly worked with you. It might be a good idea to refrain from asking peers/ juniors for recommendations, unless there is a better option. If you can manage to get a recommendation from a client, that speaks volumes about your work.
6. If you’re a professional looking to make a job switch, your managers, team leaders, supervisors, and peers are your go-to people.
Of course, a lot varies case-to-case, and thus, seeking professional counsel can be advantageous. An admissions consultant can help you finalize the referees relevant for your particular case.
Ask Right: How to Get a Winning Letter of Recommendation
Requesting a letter is as much an art, as writing one is. Many people don’t get it and end up asking the wrong people, or at the wrong time. Your referee shouldn’t be startled by an unprecedented email sitting in their inbox, when the school/ recruiter decides to reach out.
Here’s a simple 3-step process to get a great Letter of Recommendation:
- Give your referee a heads-up and seek their permission – Tell the person you’re applying for a program/ position and ask them if you could list them as a reference. Tell them why you are approaching them for the same.
- Discuss your objectives – It’s important for the writer to understand why you’re applying for that particular program/ position. Discuss your options, ambitions, way forward, and achievements with them. This will help give them build a context for your letter.
- Follow-up with them – Follow-up is important, but again, don’t go overboard. Ask them when you can follow up with them. Give them at least a month’s notice.
Types of Letters of Recommendations
A letter of recommendation varies with the objective of application, and the place one is applying to.
Here are a few different types of Letters of Recommendation:
1. Letter of Recommendation for Undergraduate College Application: A letter for an undergraduate study is characterized by academic and co-curricular/ extra-curricular achievements. Your teachers, principal, or any other school authority that writes a letter for you will speak about your discipline, your code of conduct, your achievements, and your drive to achieve bigger things in life. In other words – Future Potential.
2. Letter of Recommendation for Graduate School: A letter for graduate or specialized studies like those of business, law, medicine etc. are intensive on what triggers the applicant’s interest towards such a specialized field, and what has the applicant done to develop the said interest. If you’re taking a letter from your workplace, it should talk about your significant work experience in the field. Alternatively, performance matters.
3. Letter of Recommendation for Business School: A letter to a business school might not be a letter per se. B-schools request answers to specific questions, directly related to the program, school or the applicant. They would be interested to know the leadership qualities the applicant has or the writer’s evaluation of the various projects he/she has worked on.
A letter meant for med school, or law school, like B-schools, is intensive on work that has already been done. Demonstration here is the key.
4. Letter of Recommendation for Job Switch: A letter of recommendation for a job change is quite intensive on one’s work experience, their profile, and the company they are applying to. The letters talk about one’s fit with the profile, and their demonstrated experience.
Frequently Asked Questions about LORs
Is a reference letter the same as a Letter of Recommendation?
Absolutely not! A reference letter is more generic in nature, intended to state facts. In most cases, a reference letter is simply written to certify that you know the applicant, and confirm the basic details about them. A LOR, in contrast, is more specific, and specialized, and talks about the actual credibility of the applicant, the ethics, results, value system, projects they have displayed during the time that you have known them.
How should you address a Letter of Recommendation?
A letter is just like a formal letter, it needs to have a proper structure. If you are privy to the details of the person reading your letter, mention them. If not, address the letter to the department it is concerned with. In 99% of the cases you will be aware of the person/ department reading the letter. If, however, you’re not aware of the same, a general line – To whomsoever it may concern – can be used.
What is the difference between a Letter of Recommendation and a Letter of Intent?
A Letter of Recommendation is completely different from a letter of intent. LORs are third-party views of the applicants, while letters of intent are written by the applicants themselves to describe their intention behind applying to the program.
Your letter of recommendation is an exceptionally important element of your application. More so, because every word written in the letter contributes to the overall impression, and admissions committee member draws in your favour. In our country, where most of the applicants write their own letters of recommendation, contrary to the very nature of LORs, understanding the specifics, and getting the tone, and content right is critical.
A good letter of recommendation can make or break your application, and hence requires serious thought, personalized strategy, and an avid content curation. With so many elements to consider, the whole process can be daunting, and the right kind of help, at the right time makes a world of difference.
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