Things you must include in a Recommendation letter

We cannot emphasize enough on the importance a Letter of Recommendation in regards to your admission applications to universities abroad. Irrespective of which country you are applying to, universities often ask for a minimum two recommendation letters (LOR) or sometimes even three. The types of LORs required would also vary according to the various courses. However, due to the lack of such documents in Indian Admissions or Job Sectors, the students and Recommenders are often confused as to what all to write about in a Letter of Recommendation. We also have formats of LORs for your reference but like every person it might not match your specific requirements. Hence, here is a list of things you must and can include in a letter of recommendation.

This article lists out the things that are a must in any LOR.
1. Relationship with the Applicant

When writing a Letter of Recommendation, it is mandatory to clearly specify your relationship with the applicant – which essentially would mean whether you are a professor of the applicant or an immediate supervisor. At times students offer LORs from their colleagues as well and though in rare cases the same can be expected, it is not a wise choice of a recommender. (Read How to Choose a Right Recommender.)

2. Tenure of Association

An LOR must clearly state the time you have known the applicant for. If you have been a professor and got acquainted with the student in say his/her second year of graduation, then you must count the time from your first acquaintance till the date of recommendation. A Head of the Department, however, can take into consideration the entire tenure of the students’ graduation. You can be generic about years (ex. I have known the applicant for over 4 years now), or it could be very specific number (usually in cases of Professional LORs – ex. I have been the applicant’s supervisor these past ten months). Until and unless specified, you do not have to be exact but must remember that it gives a true understanding of the entire tenure of your association with the applicant.

Note for students: While choosing your recommenders, it is often best to choose a person who has known you for a decent tenure to ensure that it does not invalidate your LOR has non-conclusive.)

3. Nature of association

By nature we refer to specifics. For instance, if you were a professor/ teacher, then which subject you taught the applicant and if possible, in which semester. In case you are a manager or a supervisor, you should mention the applicant is directly reporting to you or not. In case you do not have a direct association with the applicant, you must explain how you know the person and how you are capable to recommend him/her. This might be true in case of a Project Head or a Head of the Department. As a Recommender, it is very essential to validate your association with the applicant.

4. Accomplishments of the Applicant

The entire purpose of a recommendation letter are the basis on which you are recommending the applicant to the specific course. According to the nature of the LOR, the recommender should highlight the accomplishments of the applicant that are relevant to the course. This varies for an Academic LOR and a Professional LOR but one thing that must stand out in an LOR is the reason that identifies the applicant as unique and a good fit for the course. This could be done by highlighting the academic accomplishments/ scores of the applicant or the projects the applicant has worked on. This again could be academic projects (in case of Academic LOR) or work projects (in a Professional LOR).

Apart from the accomplishments, it is extremely essential to include the other qualities that are important to the applicant’s suitability to the course. This also highlights what should not be included. For instances….talking about the student’s work in the College fest might not be that big a consideration. Or for that matter the student’s performance in a subject that is not relevant to the course the student is applying for. Keep the focus on what the student is planning to pursue and accordingly highlight the facets of the personality that are a right match for the course.

5. Comparative Performance

This is something which most recommenders miss out on and one of common errors in a recommendation letter. For instance, suggesting that the student was a topper in a subject has no relevance till you provide the class size. Also, the merit of the student increases with comparative suggestions. This is often best described by suggesting where you rank the applicant in the relevant class/ group size. Top 5 percent, average or below average. Often form based LORs clearly ask the recommender to share the group/ team size to determine the performance in a more objective manner.

To summarize, a LOR is as much an objective letter as can be. It is extremely important to clearly present the student’s performance in numbers. Apart from these must haves, there are some specific points which must be included in an Academic LOR and in a Professional LOR. So when writing an LOR, ensure that the document clearly represents the student’s candidature. Remember, writing a winning recommendation letter requires both the right recommender and more importantly the right content. Do this well for the future of the applicant rides on what you, as a recommender, say about the applicant. Your words matter so choose well!

Apart from the accomplishments, it is extremely essential to include the other qualities that are important to the applicant’s suitability to the course. This also highlights what should not be included. For instances….talking about the student’s work in the College fest might not be that big a consideration. Or for that matter the student’s performance in a subject that is not relevant to the course the student is applying for. Keep the focus on what the student is planning to pursue and accordingly highlight the facets of the personality that are a right match for the course.

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