Getting Your Letters of Recommendation

27 minutes

You’re reading an excerpt of Admitted by Soundarya Balasubramani. Written by an Ivy League graduate from India, this is the proven guide for students worldwide looking to pursue undergraduate or graduate study abroad in the U.S., Canada, or Europe. Purchase for instant access to the guide and other exclusive resources—including sample SOPs, sample resumes, scholarship lists, and a private community with other readers.

When we think of our professors, we generally picture them inside a classroom with a clicker (or a piece of chalk) in hand, delineating a topic with ferocity.

Our mind falls prey to a few heuristics when it comes to decision-making, one of which is called the representative-ness heuristic.* It was discovered by two behavioral economists and Nobel laureates, Daniel Kahneman,* who we referenced in an earlier chapter, and Amor Tversky,* in the early 1970s.

You can think of heuristics as shortcuts that your brain uses to reduce cognitive overload and get to a decision quicker. However, sometimes, these shortcuts lead to faulty decisions and stereotypical thinking. Let’s look at an example from Kahneman’s book, Thinking, Fast and Slow,* which we introduced in the previous chapter:

An individual has been described by a neighbor as follows:

“Steve is very shy and withdrawn, invariably helpful but with very little interest in people or in the world of reality. A meek and tidy soul, he has a need for order and structure, and a passion for detail.”

Is Steve more likely to be a librarian or a farmer?

What do you think?

Most people think Steve is more likely to be a librarian. However, the number of farmers greatly exceeds the number of librarians in the world. We don’t take such statistics into account while making these observations.

danger When we make decisions based on representativeness of what we already know about someone or something, we generally tend to overestimate the likelihood that an event related to that will occur, even if it objectively would not.

In this scenario, since we have observed our professors to be inside a classroom during most of our interactions, we tend to be blind to the rest of the duties they attend to. A typical day for a professor involves teaching classes, preparing for the classes they teach, receiving over 50 emails and responding to about 40% of them,* writing academic papers, reviewing academic papers, managing administrative duties (which some* have shortened to RAM, i.e., Random-Ass Meetings), and of course, if they manage to find the time amidst this chaos, actually perform research to advance humanity’s collective knowledge.

The next time you approach a professor to ask for a letter of recommendation, remember the above and make their job as easy as possible from your end.

Great question. Most components in your application—statement of purpose, resume, extracurriculars—are a personal account of why you think you should study at the university you’re applying to. The letter of recommendation, on the other hand, lets the admissions committee know why someone well-regarded and academically sound thinks you should study at the university. It is not to be regarded as a mechanical task wherein you write up a generic draft which is then blindly signed by your professor and sent to the university.

A recommendation letter is a pretty big deal.

And the professors know this. A seasoned professor might have written dozens in their lifetime. However, that does not mean they enjoy writing it. I found a question on Quora asking if professors enjoy writing recommendations. Here is an excerpt from the response by Tim Hanson, a professor at the University of Southern California.*

Honestly? No. It takes me at least a couple hours to write a good letter. This involves boiling everything a student has done down to two “knock ’em dead” paragraphs. So I have to read their vita, teaching evaluations, discuss courses I’ve taught them, awards they’ve received, etc.

I often put writing such letters off because I dislike it so much, even for the best students. BTW, if I cannot write a student a good LoR I tell them that directly up front. That way they can ask someone else.

So, it is up to you to primarily choose the right people. The right person is someone who sits in the intersection shown here:

This is not a trivial problem, so take your time to choose the right list of people. We recommend following the method laid out below:

Step 1: Calculate Number of Letters Needed

Generally, a university would require either two or three letters of recommendation. In most cases, it is two. Assuming you plan on applying to eight universities, that comes to 16–20 recommendations. However, that does not mean you need to find 16–20 recommenders, since a professor would be willing to shell out more than one. From our experience, professors provide three on average, and maybe more depending on the strength of your relationship.

statsA back-of-the-napkin calculation says that you would need between four and six recommenders to apply to eight universities.

Now, let’s stop assuming and start putting this data in the Dream Tracker.

actionNavigate to the sheet titled LORs, add your list of universities, and fill in the column that asks you for the number of recommendations needed for each.

Step 2: Create List of Potential Recommenders

As mentioned earlier, it has to be someone who you spent a significant period of time with. The six months mentioned is a good standard to keep in mind, but it can also be an employer with whom you interned for a period of three months.

danger Although we have been using the term professor as a catch-all for people who can recommend you, it doesn’t have to be someone within the realms of academia. In fact, it would help if you can get it from someone who works at a company (a manager, or maybe a CEO?), so your profile looks well-rounded.

Since we decided you might need between four and six recommenders, be sure to have a list of at least six so that you have a buffer for people who might say no.

Step 3: Re-Check the List Once More

Ask yourself if you put down a name because they have closely observed your work or because they are the head of a department who has seen you thrice over the past four years. We all want to get a recommendation from the heads of departments and directors of companies.

However, would you rather someone write this:

“It is my pleasure to recommend Siya to your graduate program. Siya took my course on Psychology in her junior year. She is a strong student, works well with her peers, and is attentive inside the classroom. She scored an A in my course and consistently scored above average in her assignments. Apart from being a good student, she also is the head of design for the university’s magazine and spends her time volunteering at the local NGO on the weekends.”

Or have them write this:

“Siya caught my attention from the very first day with the thought-provoking questions she asked in my classes, when she took my course on Psychology. She displays maturity that goes well beyond her years and treats her peers with great respect, something that I witnessed when her team came for the office hours every other week. Apart from excelling inside the classroom, I’ve also had the pleasure of witnessing her superb design skills in the university’s magazine published every month. Her passion to give back to the community through volunteering is obvious through her thesis essay, and even casual encounters. I strongly recommend her for your graduate program, and am waiting to see her shine.”

The former is not a bad recommendation. It is just a recommendation written badly.

The professor sticks to merely mentioning facts (scored an A, scored well in assignments, head of design, etc.) that the admissions committee already knows, and doesn’t mention any personal observations.

Tying all that together, a good letter should be written by someone who:

  • has observed you over a period of time in close quarters, frequently

  • has had positive personal encounters (remember, it’s plural)

  • has a relevance to the program you’re applying to.

thinkSo now, ask yourself once again: did you pick the right people?

If you did a good job picking the right people, this step should proceed smoothly.

How well a letter is written depends on choosing the right people and providing them with sufficient information for them to do their job well. We thought we would walk you through how we would approach a professor for a recommendation now, given all the wisdom we’ve gathered with the help of hindsight.

Approach in Person

We understand this is not always possible, if your professor lives in a different city (or country). However, as much as you can afford to, schedule some time with your professor so you can request it in person. If that isn’t possible, request to schedule a call if they know you well enough or send a well-worded email, which is what most students resort to. We’ll get to the well-worded part in a minute.

Give Them a Reason to Say Yes

To reiterate, you are not the only student who is requesting a letter, and they have a packed schedule as it is. So give them a reason to say yes by being prepared with your request. If you’re meeting them in person or speaking on the phone, give sufficient context around the following: why you chose to study abroad, picked that major, and decided upon those universities. They would be delighted if you chose a major where their expertise lies.

In addition to requesting for a letter, you need to provide them with the information they need to fulfill that request.

Speaking of which…

Share the Right Amount of Information

Most things in life are not black or white. Rather, they lie somewhere in between. Sharing too little or no information will lead to them writing a short, insipid letter that could hurt you rather than help you. Sharing too much information will overwhelm or, worse, annoy them into writing a subpar letter which could once again hurt you.

Beyond sharing the foundational details, you need to carefully cherry-pick the achievements and highlights you want to mention, to refresh their memory of how amazing you really are. In no specific order, the following are recommended fields to share:

  • context of your relationship with them

  • brief description of the program you’re applying to and why

  • resume

  • CGPA (and/or semester wise GPA)

  • list of relevant internships/projects you’ve worked on

  • selective list of achievements

  • selective list of extracurricular and volunteering activities

  • instructions to write and/or submit the letter

  • deadline to submit the letter by (you don’t want to forget this)

actionIdeally, we recommend you create a document with all the information mentioned above, so they have one or at most two documents to reference before writing your letter.

Putting all that into practice, below is an example of a good introductory email asking for a recommendation, assuming you cannot meet them in-person:

Subject: Request for Letter of Recommendation [thank you]

Dear [Title + Name],

I hope you are having a wonderful week so far! Firstly, thank you for taking the time to read this email.

I am reaching out to request for a letter of recommendation from you as I am applying for the master’s program in Energy Engineering at University of California, Berkeley, USA. My aim is to first pursue a specialization in Solar Engineering, followed by a doctorate degree.

One of the main drivers in pursuing this degree were your classes on physics and advanced mechanics. Your way of explaining a concept using real-life case studies motivated me to think of ways I can contribute to climate change by working towards building a sustainable renewable energy source.

I would be honored if you took the time to recommend my candidature to the university. I have attached below all the required information that you can use to write the letter, including, but not limited to: my past internship work, publications, transcript, impact through volunteering, and accolades received. Should you need any more information, please let me know. The recommendation is due on Oct 21st, five weeks from now.

That being said, I know you have an extremely busy schedule, and so I would completely understand if you don’t have the time to write this letter. Please feel free to say no. Thank you for taking the time to read this, and I hope you have a wonderful rest of your week.

Sincerely,

Neel

That’s it.

A polite, genuine, well-written email goes a long way in strengthening your relationship with the receiver.

If you noticed in the final paragraph, we alluded to something important: giving the receiver the opportunity to say no. Why is this important?

thinkThink about a scenario where you only have one restaurant to eat at, or worse, only one dish to choose from.

Would you be happy with being constrained to having a single choice, having no freedom to exercise your choice in the first place?

Probably not.

At least biologically, we like to exercise control:*

We are born to choose. The existence of the desire for control is present in animals and even very young infants before any societal or cultural values of autonomy can be learned. It is possible that organisms have adapted to find control rewarding—and its absence aversive—since the perception of control seems to play an important role in buffering an individual’s response to environmental stress.

When you give the other person the choice to refuse upfront, it helps them feel in control.

Paradoxically, giving someone the option to say no might improve the chances of them saying yes.

Keep this in mind for not just now, but also for your future encounters with people when you network.

We’re almost there. Now that you’ve chosen the right people and sent out requests for recommendation, it’s time to wait. And follow up diligently.

actionIn the Dream Tracker, ensure that you mention the submission deadline for each university and make use of the Add Reminder or other such add-ons* to set reminders to be sent to yourself two weeks before, so you can notify your recommender.

Assuming it takes the recommender at least four weeks to write and refine your letter, your first contact should happen at least a month or so in advance, and the follow-up should be two weeks before. As soon as you are notified of the submission of the letter, take time to draft another email expressing your gratitude.

Getting your dream admit requires the help and support of a village, and your recommenders play a key role in that village.

To Waive or to Not Waive

Every university you apply to will display the following message in the letter of recommendation section of the application.* This gives you the choice to either waive or not waive your right to view the recommendation submitted by the professor (or whoever you asked).

That question above is asking, Do you waive the right to request access to the information provided by your references?

Have you wondered why this question is being asked?

We did.

A landmark law titled Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) was signed into law by President Ford on August 21, 1974:*

The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) (20 U.S.C. § 1232g; 34 CFR Part 99) is a Federal law that protects the privacy of student education records. The law applies to all schools that receive funds under an applicable program of the U.S. Department of Education.

FERPA gives parents certain rights with respect to their children’s education records. These rights transfer to the student when he or she reaches the age of 18 or attends a school beyond the high school level.

Surprisingly, the law went into effect without offering the chance to be heard by those who were impacted by its enactment. There were no public hearings asking for testimonials from the institutions it affected. The only reasoning offered* by the senator who enforced it was that it was in response to “the growing evidence of the abuse of student records across the nation.”

This shocked schools and universities across the nation.

One of the main concerns of the law were the letters of recommendation written by professors under the assumption of confidentiality thus far.

Did the students have the right to read them all under FERPA? What if the student wanted a sentence to be corrected? Can students sue the professor or the institution for wrongly stating a fact? Some of these questions were put to rest when amendments were made to the hastily enacted law on December 31, 1974. It barred students from accessing any letters written prior to January 1, 1975.

Since then, FERPA has undergone many revisions, offering more leeway for schools to disclose the personal information of students to certain entities (such as a school they transfer to or the law enforcement when requested under a subpoena).

Today, it is mandatory for universities to give you the choice to either view the recommendation or waive your right to view it.

We strongly feel you should waive your right to view it, i.e. choose yes in the screenshot shown earlier, for the following reasons:

  • Recommender’s view: Someone who you carefully chose and someone who agreed to recommend you is not a person who would write a bad letter (or hopefully, a badly written letter). Many recommenders would draw comparisons between you and other students in their letter.* If they know you can read that at a later date, they would resort to a rather vague and insipid letter with little specificity. By waiving your right and letting them know you did that, you also establish a level of trust with the other person, which will help your case further.

  • Institution’s view: The university gives you the right to view because they have to. It doesn’t mean they encourage that behavior. Not waiving your right can be seen as a mild red flag for universities who might reach one or more of the following conclusions:

    a. the letter is not candid since it was not written under the assumption of confidentiality,

    b. the student might have played a part in writing the letter, or

    c. the student must have a moral obligation to exercise this right.

If that isn’t enough reason, you might not learn what you’re looking for even when you read the letter, since it would be out of context. Unless you read all the other letters written by your recommender, any conclusion you draw would be inaccurate.

That is why we ask you to waive the right and choose yes for that question.

However, if you choose to view it for personal reasons, notify your recommender of this decision explicitly when you ask them to write you a letter.

Student Testimonials

The best strategy to get your recommendation is to first build good relationships with the people you work with, be it your supervisor or internship guide. From my experience, it is better to work with a young professor in a small group. I realized this through my association with an Assistant Professor at IIT Madras, under whom I interned twice. He was a great mentor with whom I built a strong relationship, and we ended up publishing a paper together. He also went so far as to assist me during my graduate applications.

The same holds true for my third-year summer internship in Germany. During this internship, I built a good relationship with my supervisor, who happened to be a post-doctorate in the group. He later went on to help me obtain recommendations from my professor and was very helpful in reviewing my SOPs. In short, it is all about developing a natural rapport with your professors and guides that will aid you in getting the required LORs.

—Saman Salike, University of California, Berkeley

I felt it was important for my recommendation letters to reflect on me holistically: including my achievements and career goals. If you feel the same, you need to communicate this transparently to your recommenders. I set up meetings with my recommenders and spoke about my future aspirations, what the program was about, and how it would lead me to achieve the destination. After the meetings, I sent them a written document where the aforementioned was elucidated along with a copy of my resume. I also provided details on what skills were necessary for the program and how I have displayed them in various scenarios. By doing all this, I made sure to equip them with the right information to write a good letter.

Honestly, writing a letter of recommendation is a time-consuming task and requires huge dedication on the part of the recommender. Hence, do not request for it at the last minute. Follow a step-by-step strategy that gives them the right information and sufficient time.

—Uchechukwu Ekeopara, Dartmouth College

Final Thoughts on Getting Letters of Recommendation

You might have begun reading this chapter thinking, what’s there to learn about getting a letter of recommendation? We hope you feel differently now. A letter of recommendation, when obtained from the right person, can go a long way in getting you admitted. It shows the admissions committee who you are from a third person’s standpoint, as opposed to your own.

So begin to note down the list of recommenders based on the Venn diagram we proposed: how long they’ve known you, how well they know you, and how established they are in their role. The first two factors should take precedence over the third.

As much as you can, approach your recommender in person when you ask for the letter since it is a huge time commitment for them, and not something they enjoy writing. You can make that process easier by being prepared and sending a document with information about your achievements and experiences. A nicely worded email will go a long way. Also, don’t be shy to follow up with them. Give a buffer of ten days after your first email to follow up if you haven’t heard back.

Finally, we strongly recommend that you waive your right to view the letter. If you have done a good job choosing your recommenders, there shouldn’t be a need to view it in the first place. This letter must be written with confidentiality and trust. Once all the letters have been submitted, take the time to thank them for their effort. You can also go the extra mile to keep them in the loop as you begin getting your results, thus continuing to grow your relationship.

A Little Reflection on Letters of Recommendation

thinkWho are three people you have met that you highly look up to in your professional life?

What were the top criteria you used while choosing your recommenders?

Did you provide them just the amount of information they would require?

Aside from an email, how else can you say thank you to your professors? Think about it.

Going the Extra Mile34 minutes

I always tell aspiring product managers that being a good product manager is not the same as being a good product manager interviewee. To ace your interview, you need to prepare on five different verticals (product design, product strategy, guesstimation, technical, and behavioral). I remember solving a dozen questions found on Leetcode, figuring out ways to improve all the products I use, and testing myself on a plethora of how many coffee shops are present in San Francisco type questions when I was preparing for my interviews.

As a product manager, you don’t need to code or know the statistics of your city’s coffee shops. Rather, you need to be good at collecting requirements and feedback from your customers, building relationships with the various teams you work with, and balancing priorities across engineering, business, and design. Yet, you have to learn things which you don’t particularly need for your interview process. Why?

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