Originally published in the Hindustan Times Education Supplement
Whether you are applying for undergraduate, graduate or MBA, most foreign universities require at least 1 letter of recommendation (LOR) in order to get an objective perspective on you beyond grades and test scores. Unfortunately many students treat the process of requesting LOR’s as an afterthought. This is a mistake because colleges often use recommendations to tip an already good application into the admit pile. Looking at it this way, LOR’s are as important as essays, but students rarely spend the same amount of time thinking about LOR’s as they do essays.
So, who should you ask? For undergraduates, ask a ‘core’ teacher (e.g. for science students ask a math, physics or chemistry teacher) and one from a sub-core teacher (e.g. art, English, history). Also, recommendations need not come only from teachers in whose class you have performed the best. A testimonial from a teacher who has seen you improve or percieves you as dedicated and hard working can be equally strong. Also, if you have a weakness to explain in your academic record a recommender can sometimes explain it on your behalf with more credibility.
MBA applicants should request LOR’s from a senior colleague to whom the applicant has reported and who will convincingly support the applicant’s candidacy. Within these parameters, letters from alumni of the business school where you are applying are best and if that is not possible then from alumni of any business school. Recommenders who have attended business school are aware of the qualities that are required for success in an MBA program and will therefore write more compelling letters. Do not request letters from somebody too senior, who does not know your work product, or from a peer, whose evaluation will carry little weight.
Sometimes teachers or seniors do not have the writing skills, interest or time to provide letters of recommendation. In this case you can add a supplemental letter from a coach, mentor, or other adult who has credibility, knows you well and can write a supportive letter. If you include such a letter, you should give a brief note of explanation in the application about why you have done so.
Resist the practice of writing your own letters and getting them signed off by a recommender. First of all, the voice of the LOR will be similar to that used in the essays, which may arouse suspicion and cause the admissions officer to automatically discount the letters. Second, an authentic letter will include details about how you compare with your peers, something you can’t possibly know. Though you shouldn’t write your own letter, you should nonetheless cultivate a relationship with your recommender as much in advance as possible to make him/her aware of who you are beyond the classroom or office. Ask for the letters well in advance and provide a detailed resume that outlines your experience, skills and strengths and highlights other activities in which you are involved. After asking in person, put your request for the letter in writing (email is fine) and specifically remind the recommender of certain projects you have worked on with him/her that might be worth mentioning in the letter.
Finally, a lot of applicants are excited to request letters from important, senior political figures, film stars or corporate big-wigs who are known to them through a third-party. This is not a good idea. These people do not know you personally, nor can they speak to your ability to succeed in your education. Letters like these will do little to boost your candidacy and may hurt you if you have wasted the chance to get a stronger letter.