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The 10 Commandments of Recommendation Letters

One of the main mistakes international applicants make in their application process involves getting the wrong letters of recommendation (or ‘references’) from the wrong people, or managing the recommendation process poorly. Use the cumulative experience of the GradTrain team and follow these rules to choose the right references and learn how to manage the process in order to avoid some common mistakes that can become the “kiss of death” for your application: 

  1. Get references who know you well. This is more important than to get a reference who is a“big name” but can barely spell your name. Try for a moment to look at the application process from the point of view of the admission committee. They face a big information problem: they receive many applications and know basically nothing about any of them. Especially for international applicants, it is likely that the admissions committee will not know your current or past school’s name and reputation, and not the names of your professors. Whatever you can do to give the committee more information about you, will make their work easier, and they would feel more confident about your candidacy. They are likely to get this information from a reference who knows you well, rather than from someone who knows you a bit but is a “big name” (if you can find a reference who knows you well and is a "big name", that is ideal of course). 
  2. Choose references who can make you stand out. The committee assumes you put forward the best case for your candidacy. Therefore, they assume that you picked as references people who think the most highly of you (well, besides your mom, maybe). If you send a letter from somebody who kind of likes you, but is not really impressed by your skills and academic competence, the committee would assume this is the best you could find. They would not invest the time and energy to try to read into your strategy or psychology of why you picked this reference over someone who could have written a stronger letter. Therefore, make sure you have people who can write really strong letters. It is best if they can write things they cannot write about more than one person, such as: “The BEST student in her class”; “The HIGHEST grade”; “The MOST creative”; etc. This conveys that you are really outstanding in their eyes. 
  3. Choose wisely: Academic vs. professional letters. Remember you are applying for a university degree, and you will be judged by academic standards. Therefore, your current or former professors and lecturers (the terminology is different in different parts of the world) are the most natural references. However, in some cases it is a good idea to diversify, and get one letter from an employer. These cases include, for example, if you have substantial, relevant and impressive work experience or an internationally well-known employer. But limit yourself to one professional letter. The rest should come from your professors and lecturers. If this employer is affiliated with or is teaching at a university – see if he or she can mention it in the letter. Try to also be relevant to the specific school you are applying to: if your references have any personal connection to one of the programs or schools you are applying to (for example, if they studied there, visited there or taught there), it would be good if they mention it, and say that based on their personal acquaintance with both you and the school – you are a good fit. 
  4. Be relevant. Choose references who can describe relevant skills. Remember: the admissions committee is not your psychologist. You – and your references – do not need to focus on irrelevant traits you might have. You need to show that you are what THEY are looking for. Of course, if you have outstanding achievements, honors, certificates of excellence or extra-curricular activities that are not relevant to your studies – do mention them. It is important that the committee will perceive you as a well-rounded, motivated person in general. But in the end, you must ask yourself: what do the committee members look for in the field you are applying for? Who is the perfect candidate for them? Somebody intelligent? Analytic? Creative? Passionate? Somebody with some specific life experience? Choose as references people who can demonstrate that you have those skills and traits. 
  5. Don’t be shy. Despite our wishes, professors rarely offer to write letters of recommendation at their own initiative even for outstanding students. You will probably need to take the first step in this dance. Many applicants feel uncomfortable turning to former professors they lost touch with in order to ask for this favor. You don’t need to feel uncomfortable. Professors view recommending good students as part of their job. They are also often used to hearing these requests from former students who lost touch, and are happy to help. Our suggestion is to send a short, polite email to the professors you target, remind them who you are (and how they liked you / what your grade or ranking was, etc.), ask to consult with them about your application, and make a face-to-face appointment (if possible). When you meet, consult with them generally about your application (they may just give you good advice), remind them (tactfully) how good a student you were and then ask politely if they can write a letter for you. 
  6. Read the signs. If a professor tells you things like: “sure, I would love to write for you… just be aware that another student of mine is applying and I am very committed to help her get in;” or “I would love to help, but do not feel qualified to evaluate your work”, or “weren’t you much closer to Prof. McGonagall from that other department,” this means their letter will probably NOT BE STRONG. Don’t deceive yourself. Try to find somebody else. 
  7. Allow your references enough time and make their lives easier. Be considerate and polite and don’t impose an uncomfortable timeframe. 4-5 weeks is a reasonable timeframe for most people. After you meet with your recommenders, send them an email that specifies the deadlines and what exactly they are asked to do. If schools provide forms, or ask to address it to anybody specific – you should be the one pointing that out to your references. Don’t just send your references links to the school’s website and let them figure it out. Be active and control the process. You will need to remain in touch and may need to send a friendly reminder 2 weeks before the deadline (and if the letter is not sent, send more polite reminders during the last week before the deadline). 
  8. Fit the narrative of your application. Your application package should present you in a consistent (though well-rounded) way. If you are trying to come across as an experienced manager and an outgoing leader, it may really not help if your references portray you as a quiet, introvert geek. You cannot, of course, control what your professors and other references are writing. But you can help them get a better picture of you. We already suggested you meet with them in person, and describe where you are in life. Also, send them your CV, transcripts, a paper you wrote in their class (that they graded high), and your personal statement, when ready. You can also write a (short, please!) summary of key points and achievements from your academic track that your reference may choose to mention in the letter. They want their letter to be helpful, and they would feel more confident recommending somebody who they feel they know better. Of course, tell them when you meet that you will send them all of these materials and let them confirm that it is OK for them. Don’t just throw it all at them! 
  9. Be appreciative. Make sure to thank your references and keep them posted about your progress. Keeping in contact with your references is important. You may want to consult with them on other issues in the future or use them as references for scholarship applications later on. The level of communication that makes sense depends on your relationship with each individual reference. You should contact them at least once in the end of the process to update them with the results. When you do, always present the situation in a positive way, if possible. So phrase it as “I got accepted to X and Y and both offered me scholarships,“ rather than ”I applied to 10 different programs and only heard back from X and Y, and the scholarships they offered is lower than the one school Z offers to those they accepted (not me).” Don’t forget to thank them. And feel free to stay in touch once a year to keep them updated with your progress. 
  10. Don’t ever use a reference without their permission. Anytime you write somebody’s name as a reference – they need to be asked in advance. Even if they were your reference in the past. Even if you know they would agree. Even if it’s hard to get a hold of them. You do NOT want anybody to be contacted by schools without asking them beforehand. It makes you look unprofessional and reduces the chances of a good recommendation. 
We hope this helps. We’ve been in your shoes and know what you are going through. One thing we can tell you at this point is – try your best. Get our help if needed. This process is stressful – but it is definitely worth it. You won’t regret it. Feel free to write any comments or questions you have below! For any personal question you might have, please visit us at GradTrain and post your question. We’ll write back within 22 hours –hopefully with some good advice!

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