What is a letter of recommendation or LOR? – Get insider tips on what makes for a good LOR and how to get one from your recommenders.
Remember we were discussing the key documents in last article and we discussed the matter that goes into SOPs. Now is the time to discuss what constitute a good LOR.
Letter of Recommendation (LOR)
LOR stands for Letter of Recommendation. It is a document that provides the admission officers with a comprehensive insight into your candidature for admission.
All universities usually ask for 3 LORs – and you can choose who to get them from. Here are the LOR guidelines set by University of California, Berkeley.
“Indicate how long you have known the applicant and in what capacity. Graduate schools are primarily interested in recommendations that come from professors who know the applicant and his/her academic work as well as from employers. They are primarily interested in faculty members’ summary estimates of the candidate’s general promise as a graduate student. The more the recommendation reflects real knowledge of the applicant and his/her performance, the more useful the letter is to the graduate school admissions committees and thus to the applicant.”University of California, Berkeley
Why is LOR so important?
LOR is the only place where a third person can help strengthen your application. Sometimes, a LOR from a highly regarded Professor alone can get you admitted – even if rest of the application was average. LOR is an unbiased external perspective that schools highly value. As such, LORs can be more important for PhD applicants in vouching for their ability to research.
First, let’s understand what constitutes a good LOR-
A good LOR is one that validates your candidacy by sounding genuine, vouching for your ability to excel at your target program and comes from someone who is credible.
Don’t forget to check out sample LORs for MS programs
Who should you get your LOR from?
This is very important factor. Since you have a choice, make sure you understand the difference it can make. Ideally, you would want to choose an internationally known recommender whom the schools can trust and who is ready to vouch for you! But its easier said than done and in 95% cases, its hard to find such a perfect recommender.
You can look for someone who is better regarded (HOD vs an Associate Prof for example) and with whom you have worked closely. If you can find someone like this, then just go for them. Understand that people at higher positions are expected to connect with more number of students. Therefore their evaluation can be more trustworthy as they will judge you against a broader pool. As such, their evaluation saying ‘top 5% people I have interacted with’ holds more weightage than a lower ranked person’s ‘top 2% people I have worked with’.
Now, if you need to find another recommender and don’t have much choice left, go for people who know you better and will sound genuine. The mistakes that students make sometimes is that they take LORs from HODs or Deans even if they haven’t really worked with them. Although such a person has more credibility, he cannot be expected to know the student personally. As such, any recommendation from him will lack the substance. As opposed to it, it may be better to get LOR from someone who knows your work better and regards it highly even if he doesn’t have a fancy title.
If you are presently working, you could get one LOR from your project manager/lead. The longer you have worked, better it is to get a LOR from your manager. This is because they will be up to date on your skills and accomplishments. Sometimes, people still choose to get academic LORs as they don’t wish to disclose their MS plans to their employer. This is fine as MS do not require professional LORs per se anyways.
Other factors to consider are – the articulation ability of person. Even if he thinks highly of you but can’t convey it nicely, it may jeopardize your chances.
In case you are applying for PhD, getting a LOR from someone in your desired area of research matters. You should get at least one LOR that evaluates your research skills. So, choose your recommenders accordingly.
Writing the actual LOR
Few Professors are used to writing LORs. They can do the job on their own but you can still give them inputs. For eg. you can provide them details on what you have been working on and what is your proposed area of study so that they can talk about that in the LOR. Remember that these people are busy, so you will need to follow up and help them help you.
Sometimes recommender might ask the student to draft a letter that they can then modify. This is perfectly acceptable but students should take care that the letter gives the perspective from the recommender and not feed praises for the sake of it. Try to provide only partial drafts and have them write the meat of it so that the letter has a unique voice. If you end up writing full drafts for every recommender, they could sound all same.
So, as a student, you can do the following to help your recommenders-
- Remind them of your accomplishments (try to split it between them based on relevance of the field and subjects)
- Brief them on your work and what/where you are applying to
- Provide them with written descriptions of projects that they can use in their letters directly
- Follow up politely so that the process gets done on time
So, that’s it about the LORs. Always, remember to keep recommenders updated on the schedule as you don’t want to miss the deadlines if they end up going on vacation in the last minute.
Next, you should be building an impressive resume, check out our guide and template here.
For specific LOR tactics, check out our bestselling MS Book: Smart Engineer’s Complete Guide to MS in USA.
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