A LOR is a testament of an applicant’s suitability for a graduate program in the shape of a letter (written by a third-party evaluator/recommender) shared with the Admissions Committee to help them make an informed admission decision. High-demand graduate Schools receive a very high number of applications for their programs around the year. Because admission to these schools can be exceedingly competitive, a well-written and strong LOR can play a very important role in getting an admission into the school of choice.
A winning LOR not only gives a catalog of positive feedback of the applicant but also gives ‘stories’ about him/her: information and impression that are not available from other documents in the application process. It gives a ‘portrait’ of the student, his/her accomplishments, and the context of those accomplishments. Admissions Committees are known to appreciate evaluation that gives them a window to a student’s attainment and environment.
In a winning LOR, an enthusiastic recommendation is supported by evidence and fact and peppered with interesting anecdotes and, at the same time, insightful and informative. Such a LOR generally includes something that the reader remembers, such as an unusual anecdote, interest, or a description of the applicant.
In doing so, it answers several critically important questions.
• What is the context of the relationship of the recommender with the applicant? How long and closely have they known one another?
• What motivates and excites the applicant?
• Has the applicant known to have gone beyond classroom engagement, has pushed his academic boundaries, and undertaken any intellectual challenge?
• Does the applicant possess the critical skills, techniques, and personality traits required to undertake the program?
• Does the applicant have the potential for scholastic accomplishment and leadership far and above the ability to merely get a good grade in a single class?
• Is the applicant self-directed and self-motivated in a research environment?
• Does the applicant possess any unique competency or skill?
• How does the applicant interact with his teachers and peers?
• What makes the recommender remember the applicant?
• Has the applicant negotiated setbacks or failures and how did he respond to such extenuating circumstances?
• Does the intended graduate program fit the applicant’s career aspirations?
• If the recommender has any experience of engaging with the university/college of choice of the applicant, is the applicant a good match for it?
• How he might grow from that experience and contribute as well?
An impressive LOR is easy to read and understand what the writer wants to tell. A well-structured LOR achieves this easily. A good Graduate School LOR seldom exceeds 600 words and has several distinct parts, viz.
• Introduction: Sets the tone of the letter and attracts the attention of the reader
• Acquaintance: Explains how the recommender has come to know the candidate, in what capacity, and for how long
• Attributes: Lists some relevant positive qualities of the applicant
• Academic Attainment: Discusses the academic achievements of the applicant
• Specific Skills: Spotlights some of the demonstrated skills the applicant possesses
• Work and Research Experience
• Emotional Maturity: Explains the motivation, psychological maturity, and preparedness of the applicant to undertake graduate study
• Recommendation: A final statement expressing enthusiasm and excitement for the applicant; endorses the candidate’s application and uses the word ‘recommend’
• Positive Closing: The LOR closes with a positive note with contact details, expressing the recommender’s willingness to help further.
A winning LOR is marked by its tone. It is distinctively positive. You can read and feel the optimistic vibe that the recommender has for the applicant. At the same time, it should give some compelling reasons to the Admissions Committee to admit the student. A winning LOR presents you truthfully yet positively. A stunted recommendation is unlikely to earn you an enrolment.
A crack LOR avoids the generic and instead underscores the specific. It always adduces compelling evidence of achievements and adds stories and anecdotes to testify the applicant’s strength and traits. For example, instead of praising an applicant for his “capacity to correlate theoretical knowledge with practical applications”, it is far more impactful to focus on what the applicant accomplished to earn that praise. Hence, a more telling endorsement would be
“This quality was well evident in his work for the college Hybrid Race Car Team. A major fall-out of (student XXXX)’s final year project has been the proposed adoption by the Hybrid Race Car Team of his proposal of replacing conventional metal components with polymer composites. The team also has managed to propose patents and publications.”
• Irrelevant information such as ethnicity, race, religion, age, hobbies, and marital status
• Inaccurate information
• Prejudice, stereotype, or discrimination displaying gender bias or political incorrectness in choosing words
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