Letters of recommendation are incredibly important in the grad school application process because they describe an applicant from different viewpoints and add to the overall profile of the student. An effective letter of recommendation will allow the admissions committee to make a more informed assessment of the candidate.

Letters are typically from professors, mentors or supervisors and should include aspects of the applicant that cannot be ascertained from grades and test scores. Admissions officers are looking for perspective on the applicant’s performance compared to peers as well as a sense of how the applicant would contribute to their program.

Most graduate programs will require students to submit three letters of recommendation with their application. Letters of recommendation should contain information that is consistent with the applicant’s interests and goals as discussed in other parts of the application, including the personal statement. For example, if a student writes at length about a research position they had but has no letter of recommendation from their research supervisor, that would be a red flag to the admissions officer.

In addition, admission officers do not want to read three different letters with the same content. Instead, letters should expand upon something already highlighted or provide new information about a unique or exciting aspect of the student that would otherwise be omitted. For this reason, it is helpful for students to get letters from writers who know them in different capacities. For example, one from a professor that worked closely with the student on a research project, one from a supervisor from their internship and a third from a professor they took multiple classes with in their subject area.  It is important that the letters contain specific examples and anecdotes to support their description of the candidate. For example explaining the technical, quantitative or writing skills the candidate has displayed to them, or their critical thinking process and ability to collaborate with a team.

In short, an effective letter of recommendation should address these questions:

  • Who is the letter writer and what is her relationship to the applicant?
  • What are the applicant’s strengths and achievements?
  • How has the applicant overcome challenges and/or how has the applicant challenged him/herself?
  • What sets the applicant apart from his/her peers?/What makes the applicant unique?
  • How would the applicant benefit from this program in particular?
  • Does the student have the potential to thrive as a graduate student, and how does this student compare with others they have worked with?
About the author
Marc Zawel

As author of Untangling the Ivy League, Marc literally wrote the book on gaining admission to highly selective colleges. He earned a BA from Cornell University – where he met AcceptU’s co-founder – and an MBA from University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. At UNC, Marc chaired the admissions advisory board; he has also conducted alumni interviews for Cornell for more than fifteen years.

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