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.
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.