Studying in America and Canada  

3.2.3 Letters of Recommendations

Letters of Recommendation are important in all fields of study, but they are extremely important in such programs as MBA, Law, and Medicine. At the very least, recommendations are used to confirm your potential as demonstrated by other elements of the criteria. In some programs, such as MBA, Law, and Medicine, they are critically examined to go well beyond what the other elements of the decision criteria indicate about your potential for success.

Letters of Recommendations are obviously a qualitative input from those who you claim know you the best in terms of your abilities and potential for success. These are the people who will portray you in the best light. Schools know this and they discount for such bias. They assess the overall tone of the letter and its specific contents to get beyond the usual theme of "You are the best person I have ever met." or "You are the greatest thing since sliced bread." or "I strongly recommend this candidate for admission and financial assistance." Platitudes and generics are useless, but specifics and insights are extremely valuable. Knowing this, how can you influence your recommendations?

Let's walk through how you should go about getting your Letters of Recommendation (or Recommendation Forms) to maximize your chances of success. First is the issue of who should complete these forms for you; that is, who you should choose to write your recommendations. In a nutshell, they should be the individuals who care about your success and are liable to give you a very strong and positive recommendation. However, their recommendations should not deviate wildly from reality, such as the reality of your academic performance and your performance on entrance exams.

Your recommenders should have a combination of the following characteristics. They should be:

  • At the highest level possible in their organization (college or workplace)
  • Likely to give you the most positive recommendation
  • Likely to take the time to complete the recommendation carefully, thoughtfully and in detail
  • Knowledgeable about your performance, abilities and skills to prepare a very informative recommendation
  • Keenly interested in your personal success

These individuals could be your professors, supervisors at work, and/or personal contacts. The more influential and better known the recommender, the greater the weight the recommendation carries. So select the individuals for recommendations carefully.

Recommendation Forms vary across colleges and programs. But the outline of the requested information is basically the same: How does the recommender rate you relative to your peers, and why does your recommender think that you will be successful in the chosen program. Obviously, your recommenders, within the confines of truthful assessment, should rank you the highest possible and recommend you the strongest possible.

You should understand that high evaluation and strong recommendation in the Letters of Recommendation are not sufficient. The recommender must be able to explain the reasons for such assessment. One effective way to do this is to include examples of specific situations in which you excelled: brief stories about how you did something very well, how and when you exceeded or far exceeded expectations, what sets you apart and above your peers, and so on.

You should communicate this need to your recommenders when you ask them to complete your Letters of Recommendation.

You may be confronted with a situation where the recommender suggests that you write the recommendation. It is not ethical but it happens; in fact, it happens more often than we like to think. Should you end up writing a recommendation for yourself, do not make yourself out to be a superstar and deviate wildly from reality. If you end up writing more than one recommendation for yourself, make sure that they donít sound alike and that the writing style, choice of words, and specific examples are not the same. In any case, you at least should strongly request that the recommender to review what you have written and edit and correct the content for reality.

Editorís Note. Dr. Srikant Datar and Dr. Pradeep Misra, distinguished academics, would like to disassociate themselves completely from the preceding paragraph. They not only do not condone this practice in any way, shape, or form, but they also deem it wholly inappropriate and unacceptable. Despite their unequivocal and strongest objections, we have included this information to address what sometimes happens in practice.

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