Vivek Bhandari is the Founder and CEO of the ed-tech company Scholarly. An IIT Delhi and IIM Calcutta alumnus, Vivek is passionate about higher education. A former banker and mortgage expert, he mentors students and professionals for admissions to the Ivy League and top universities globally. Over a two-decade career, Vivek has led large global organisations providing banking products, IT-enabled services, technology services, loan servicing, property management, and other real estate services. He has extensive experience of working in India, the US, and Europe, and a strong understanding of these markets. Based in Luxembourg, Vivek regularly travels to North America and India for work.
The pandemic is finally in our rear-view mirror. After two years of travel restrictions and social distancing, things are finally back to normal. Not unexpectedly, there is a spike in interest from students and parents in study abroad options, particularly in English-speaking countries.
As students put the finishing touches on their university applications for Fall’23, one crucial last-moment question is always about a reference letter or letter of recommendation (LoR). We see several queries by panicked students and parents asking, “Who should we approach for LoR?”, “What should it say about the student?” and “Why is the reference letter important”, etc. In this article, we will provide some clarity about the LoR’s and answer some common questions.
What is an LoR and why is it important?
A letter of recommendation (or reference letter) is a crucial part of your application to a foreign university. This describes you from the perspective of the recommender. While your transcripts, grades and certificates are objective criteria which admissions officers use to evaluate your candidature, the LoR is the opinion of your teacher, coach or supervisor describing their observations. The LoR covers personality traits like curiosity, work ethic, class engagement, enthusiasm and focus that can’t be covered anywhere else in the application.
LoR is an important component of your application as it helps complete your picture in front of your dream university.
Who should I approach for writing an LoR?
Your recommender needs to be someone you respect and who is related to your field of interest. If you are a high school student aspiring to study engineering, this may be your Physics (Chemistry or Computer Science) teacher. If you plan to study Economics, this may be your Economics or Math teacher. Based on your extracurricular activities, awards and internships, you have interacted with and impressed other accomplished people who may be willing to write an LoR for you.
If you are already in college, your recommender may be a professor from your department or from a field that you want to pursue in graduate studies. If you are a working professional, this may be your immediate supervisor or your department head. Try to find a mentor who inspires you and you would like to emulate what they have done.
Keep in mind that several universities require two or more LoR and specify the type of recommenders (teacher, counsellor, coach, other). You should have an idea of what type of recommendations your top five university choices require.
Approach a few potential recommenders several months before the actual LoR is required. It is helpful if your recommender is accomplished in their field and has interacted closely with you.
How should I interact with my recommender(s)?
After identifying suitable recommenders, you now need to find the right opportunities to work with them and demonstrate your skills and work ethic. For high school students this may mean (a) achieving strong scores in that subject, (b) working on projects and competitions, (c) class participation, and (d) volunteer work outside of the subject.
Similarly, college students need to outperform in the subject their recommender is teaching. Outperform means doing well beyond just the grades. It requires you to have a genuine interest in the subject and discuss recent advances as well as other applications in that field. Working professionals need to go the extra mile and generate customer delight. In addition to hard work and results, they also need to demonstrate their curiosity and willingness to learn.
Keep your recommender(s) appraised about your progress and seek feedback about other things you can do to develop holistically.
You need to demonstrate your performance and work ethic and gain your recommender(s) respect.
When should I request them to write the LoR and what should it say?
It is surprising how many students approach potential recommenders a couple of weeks before the submission deadline with no background information. This is a mistake.
While your recommenders may want to support you in your admission journey, it is up to you to provide them with relevant information about your achievements and plans. Please keep in mind that teachers/professors/supervisors are busy people and be respectful of their time. Additionally, they may receive similar requests from several others and may not remember details about each student.
You should request the actual LoR well before the actual submission timeline. You should also provide supporting information including your achievements and strengths as it pertains to that subject or recommender. They can then review what you have provided, add their observations, and provide a personalized recommendation letter. If you have already prepared a statement of purpose or a resume, it may cover the relevant points you want to be addressed. Provide your recommender(s) with relevant examples of your achievements and traits that you want to highlight.
Request the final letter of recommendation at least two months before the submission deadline. You may not know about their schedule and plans. Give your recommenders sufficient time to write a letter that explains their view of you as a student and a person.
The process for admission to Ivy Leagues or other top universities is long and requires extensive effort. While academic performance is an essential factor, well-written essays and detailed letters of recommendation go a long way in helping students get admitted to their dream universities.