When applying for a degree program, an impactful letter of recommendation showcases your accomplishments and character. It can give you a competitive edge over hundreds — or even thousands — of competing applicants. For most degrees, you’ll need to provide your academic records, test scores, and a personal statement. These tell part of your story. The recommendation letter is a way for admissions officers to get to know you through someone who can speak to your motivations as well as what you’ll add to classroom discussions.
Here are seven ways to make a recommendation letter more convincing:
1) Choose the right person
Request the letter from a reference who’s seen you perform at your best, so they can explain why you’ll succeed in a rigorous academic program. If you’ve just completed a degree, this could be a professor or a mentor. If you’re a working professional, this could be a supervisor or a colleague. The reference should briefly describe their own qualifications, and then explain when you met and how they know you. Remember, the content of the letter is more important than the title of the reference.
2) Discuss your motivations and strengths
It should be clear as to why you want to join the program. Your reference should describe your motivations: these can include career goals as well as the skills you hope to gain from the experience. They should also highlight your strengths and use specific examples. For example, your reference might discuss how you mastered a complex technology, your project management abilities, or your leadership skills.
3) Offer sufficient details
While it’s important to be succinct, a letter that’s too brief can damage your application. If your reference only writes two or three paragraphs, it shows a lack of interest or limited knowledge of your background and work. A detailed letter establishes their conviction and belief in you. Aim for something close to a full page.
4) Include specific information
A letter that’s based on a template will not add value to the application. The same goes for letters that use platitudes in place of specific examples. Stories or anecdotes that illustrate your abilities are key— they help admissions officers see you as a multidimensional candidate. Statistics or numbers that demonstrate your strengths can also help differentiate your application. For example, your reference might note that you finished in the top 10 percent of your class.
5) Customize it for program
Ensure that your reference includes a paragraph or two that specifically addresses the program and your passion for it. It’s helpful to mention specific courses or professors. The admissions officers should never feel like they’re getting a recycled letter from another application.
6) Free of errors
Gently stress the importance of proofing to ensure there are no spelling or grammatical errors.
7) Is highly positive
This is not a forum to discuss concerns or weaknesses. If your reference isn’t sure they can honestly write you a highly positive letter, then it’s best to ask someone else. A tepid letter that shows a lack of knowledge or conviction does more harm than good.
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