Need to submit letters of recommendation while applying for higher education abroad? Almost all international applications require two to three letters of recommendation from people who know the applicant well. Colleges value LORs primarily because they talk about someone’s personal opinions of the applicant’s character, show that they are willing to endorse the applicant and point out things that make them an ideal candidate.
While the importance of an LOR is unquestionable, it can feel like a big responsibility and intimidating to begin with. However, with a considerable amount of planning, time and effort, applicants can manage to get great letters of recommendation.
Many universities often provide an LOR template or format for all applicants to follow, whereas, some leave it to the applicants and their referees to explore. This article will shed light on the basics of an LOR, types of LORS, its format or structure, tips to make a letter of recommendation request and so on.
What is a Letter of Recommendation?
A letter of recommendation or a recommendation letter is a document used to add extra weight to one's college or university application. In an LOR, the writer assesses the qualities and potential of an applicant or the person being recommended to join a particular course or university. This often includes details about the applicant’s personality, community involvement, work ethic, academic achievements, character references, personal details and more.
Letters of recommendation are usually requested to be written by a supervisor, teacher, employer, colleague, or a friend. Generally addressed to a university admissions officer or a new employer (in case of an employment LOR), letters of recommendation can also be issued to the person/student being recommended who then submits them to the university.
Types of Letter of Recommendation
Broadly, letters of recommendation can be divided into the following three types. Here is an overview of each of these three types along with information about who uses them and why and whom they ask to write an LOR:
ACADEMIC LETTER OF RECOMMENDATION: Academic letters of recommendation are used by applicants for admissions to higher education institutions. During undergraduate or graduate admissions, especially to overseas institutions, students are expected to submit at least one (as mentioned) letter of recommendation. Academic letters of recommendation are requested from teachers, deans, coaches, principals or any education professional who is familiar with the applicant’s academic experience. An academic LOR, again, has several types, including:
College recommendation letters,
part-time/full-time job recommendation letters such as role of a teaching assistant at the university,
Letters to obtain financial aid/scholarships
Employment Letter of Recommendation: Recommendation letters for employment or career reference letters are usually required when one is applying for a new job. These can be sent directly to the employer, put on a website, attached with a resume or job application, or handed out during a job interview. An employment letter of recommendation contains information about employment history, performance on the job, work ethic, personal accomplishments and skills. Usually written by previous employers or reporting managers, employment LORs from coworkers may also be accepted.
Character References: Character references or recommendations are often used when applying for new accommodations, child adoption or some legal situations. These are often written by people who have had a chance to work, study or experience a crucial part of their lives with the person being recommended. These may include neighbours, doctors, business associates, former employers, teachers, landlords and so on.
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Format of a Good LOR - Content and Page Layout
A good LOR would have two factors in check, first is the content format and second is the page layout. Given below is the format of a letter of recommendation, mentioned in detail:
Content Format of an LOR
So, before we structure our LOR, we need to understand a great LOR focuses on seven basic sections or parts:
Part 1: Contact Details
This comes in the letterhead, which is right at the top of the page. What it will include is information such as the applicant’s name, address and contact information. In case one does not have a letterhead, they can put this information on the top left corner of the very first page.
Or else, add information like current date, addressee name, addressee title, university name and address on the top right side of the page.
Part 2: Salutation
Like any other letter, one needs to begin an LOR by addressing the reader or the person or body to whom the letter is addressed. It is extremely important to first learn who is going to read the letter so it can be tailored accordingly. In case, the letter is to be sent to multiple universities or multiple programs, the letter can be addressed by writing “to whom it may concern”.
Part 3: Introduction
This should be a brief introduction and the first paragraph of the letter, telling the reader about oneself, their profession, expertise and relationship with the applicant. The recommender should also let the reader know how long they have known the applicant and what their current and first impressions of the applicant were. What also helps an LOR stand out is mentioning why the recommender chose to write the letter or their intentions which will help the reader trust the recommendation.
Part 4: Outline the Applicant’s Merits
From qualifications, extracurricular activities, academic specialities, personality to skills and awards or achievements, this part of the recommendation should talk all about the applicant. The applicant should make sure to provide the recommender with all the required information such as their transcript, GPA, class participation, challenges met, projects, hobbies, updated CV, list of achievements, extracurricular activities, awards of recognitions and so on.
It should also include the student’s area of interest or which subject they are good at or interested in. It should be able to persuade the reader that the applicant is genuinely passionate about the program that they are applying for.
Apart from these, the letter should further have details about the applicant’s personal qualities, attitude or zeal to move forward or improve and excel in the field of study. Another important point to mention here is the student’s future career goals or aspirations which will make them an important part of the university.
Letters that compare the applicant with their academic peers are often the most useful.
Part 5: How the Applicant Will Add Value to the Program or University
The writer, here, may try and endorse the applicant in a subtle yet direct way. An LOR becomes more effective when the applicant’s academic background is in some way related to the university’s mission or the program's requirements.
Part 6: Conclude with a CTA
The recommender, here, should directly mention that they are recommending the student for the program, highlighting the student’s potential contributions to the university. It shall help if the writer has a clear understanding of why the student is applying for the program or the intended university.
The writer may also encourage the reader to get in touch with them should they have any questions or queries about the applicant.
Part 7: Closing/Signature
The LOR can be closed by adding the recommender’s signature along with their contact details.
Page Layout Guide for an LOR
Most applicants often ignore paying attention to page layout or page format of an LOR. Although the content is more important, a good presentation of it will make it even better.
DO NOT go beyond one to two pages in length: One page with concrete or to-the-point information is enough for an evaluator to consider an application.
Keep the font basic: Do not use fonts that do not look professional. The ideal fonts for an LOR would be Times New Roman, Arial, Garamond and Helvetica.
Use a 12-point font: The font size should be too big or too small. A 12-point font would maximise readability and help in utilising the entire page .
Maintain left alignment and 1”-11/2” margins to fit the content in one page and give it an organised look.
Tips to Make a Letter of Recommendation Request
How one requests and to whom one requests a letter of recommendation influences what the recommender writes in the letter to a great extent. Here are some of the tips when requesting LORs:
The applicant should make sure to meet with potential recommenders before giving them the task. During the meeting, the student should discuss their academic goals, why they think the individual should write them a letter. The most important thing here is to ask them if they would be willing to write a strong recommendation.
One should provide the recommender with the list of universities and colleges the letter of recommendation would go to along with their application deadlines and specific LOR formats, if any.
The applicant should also list down all the awards, achievements, titles, GPA, courses taken, extracurricular activities, jobs they have done. In addition, they should give the recommender copies of their transcripts, admission essays, among other things.
The student should make sure to communicate their academic and career goals directly, and the reasons why they were applying to these universities and the chosen program of study.
One should never wait until the last minute to get an LOR. It is important to invest a good amount of time on it which could easily be around two months.
Common Mistakes While Getting an LOR
Here are some of the common mistakes that applicants make while submitting or getting an LOR:
Plagiarising: One should not submit an LOR that is not individualised or personalised and has simply been copy-pasted from the internet.
Picking the Wrong Referee: Students should be cautious about whom they pick as their recommender. More often than not, a wrong referee worsens an application.
Making it another SOP or Resume: An LOR should not be similar to an SOP or resume. While there will be a number of overlaps, an LOR should primarily outline the applicant's personality which the referee knows on a personal level. Repeating a resume or SOP on a letter of recommendation will let the evaluator believe that the applicant and the recommender do not share a good relationship.
Not Following the Right Format: Like a good SOP requires a format, a good LOR demands well-structured content.
Exaggerating: By no means, shall the LOR talk about the same facts again and again or have lack of relevant information.
Politically Incorrect: It is extremely important to be mindful of things that might be hurtful such as talking about a particular gender, race or disability.
Spelling and Grammatical Errors: Before submitting the letters of recommendation, one should review them and look for speaking and grammatical errors, if any.
Keeping it Too Short: An LOR should have at least 500 to 600 words, written on a A4 size page. While it should be crisp, it should be long enough to describe the applicant and cover the important points about their academic history.
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