GradApps: Letters of Recommendation

Hello everyone,

We are back after a short break with our discussion on Letters of Recommendation. This is the 6th post of our graduate applications series. If you have missed the previous posts, you might want to check them out at here. In this post we shall talk about how you should go about arranging  Letters of Recommendation(LOR) for your grad school application.

What is an LOR ?

An LOR is a third person view of youself for the reviewers  to judge your strengths and weaknesses. Most grad school asks for 3 LORs. In some cases they ask for two. In general people take LORs from research project supervisors, professors under whom one has taken multiple courses, HODs, project manager for people who have work experience etc. There are som strict rules regarding LORs. Getting it written by friends or relatives are highly discouraged. The grad application portals also ask contact information of recommender along with the letter. So, any trickery is very likely to get caught.

LOR is one of the most aspects of an application. It reflects the following about an applicant.

  1. Your research potential. Words of a renowned researcher (with possibly high h-index and i-10 index)  shall definitely give an extra edge to your application.
  2. How it feels to interact with you. A good recommendation letter shall not only talk about research/project work. It will also talk about how nice it is to interact with you in real life.
  3. Where does the recommender rank you among the students he has come across throughout his career.
  4. Testimony for your communication skills,
  5. Any other notable points about you the recommender may think makes you suitable for the program you are applying to. e.g. examples of your diligent behaviour etc.

Choosing the Right Recommender

Since, in normal circumstances you won't have to worry about LORs yourself, it is different than arranging an SOP. The best effort should go into deciding whose recommendations you want to get. 

Here are  a few things that you should keep in mind while choosing recommenders:

  1. Try to take LORs from fields related to  the program/department you are applying to. Since, the reviewers will be looking some qualities specific to the field, getting praised on those qualities will be a plus point. Also, this results in high probability of  reviewers knowing your recommender, which is a plus point too.
  2. If you have failed any previous endeavour where you had taken recommendation from X, then you should probably try to take LOR from X again. X most likely does not write good recommendation letters or does not know well enough about you to write good LOR or may be just a plain bad person who did not want to give you a good LOR.
  3. If you have done a project or internship under someone with a high h-index/i-10 index, and a rough idea of what he/she is going to write in the LOR you should definitely get one LOR from him/her. The rough idea can come from various sources. It may come from your past  conversations with him where he had said something like "I like working with you, you are ..."  or if you had him/her write an internship/project certificate. 
  4. Some professors are known for writing bad recommendation letters and some are known to be very generous with it. You should definitely discuss with senior students of your college to know about them. While it will be easier getting an LOR from a generous guy but keep in mind that it always may not be the best option a he/she most likely writes too many LORs. Keep this as a last resort. 
  5. It is always better to take LORs from people you have personally interacted with. Suppose if you are trying to get a recommendation from someone under whom you have done a course and suppose you have two options. Prof. A and Prof. B. In A's course you got the top grades but never personally chatted or interacted in class with A himself. But, in B's case, you have interacted extensively. Then, even though A might be better known researcher than B, you should go for B. The reason is, A will not have many things to write about you and his letter will seem to vacuous to the reviewer.
  6. Do not take a letter from someone under whom you have not achieved a top grade. Recommenders mention your class/research performence in the letter and most of them will not lie about it. And you don't want to have less than top grade written on your LORs.

Things that Happen During the LOR Process

The LOR process is mostly quite simple. You meet the persons you want to take LORs from. After you get their consent, go back to the application portal. You enter their details (name, relation to you, address, email id, phone). Make sure to use official email IDs, as the reviewers verify existence of these IDs from institute websites. After you confirm your recommenders' details the portal generally send automated emails to the recommenders with secure link to portal for letter uploading. Sometimes they make the recommenders fill an additional questionnaire  asking questions like "how is the applicant's communication skills","where does the applicant rank among the students faced by the recommender" etc. Anyways, after the recommenders get the email it is upto them to finish the process before deadline. Ideally your work is done. But, in reality it is not done at all.

The following things happen after that:
  • Your recommender is super nice and does not like to keep work pending. So, he/she writes the letter on the day he gets the email or the next , for each of your applications. This is the best scenario and you will be lucky to get one such recommender !
  • The recommender doesn't do anything and when you go back to remind him he asks you for the first deadline and assures you he will do all before it. If he/she does so, make sure to give him space and time. Do not keep budging him every day/week. But make sure to remind him  about the deadline when it comes near.
  • The recommender assures you he will do it next weekend but does not do. Either he/she forgot or was to busy to pick out time. Most likely the later. Take your time in this case but please do remind him. 
  • The recommender asks you to write a draft recommendation letter for him. Although this is not ideal but this makes the job easier for recommender. It is also good for you as you get to suggest things that you think should be in the letter. 
Finally, if you are in good contact of the recommenders they will most likely do the job in time. Do not forget to thank each one of them for taking their valuable time to recommend you. 

We hope this guide to the LOR process was helpful for you. Put your thoughts in the comments below. Stay tuned for our next post. Good luck ! See you real soon.


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