All You Need To Know About Recommendation Letters

20 - All You Need To Know About Recommendation Letters

In all admissions, whether college-level or graduate-level, a key element of a candidate’s application is recommendation letters. Recommendations are provided by individuals who have known the candidate and they are used to gather additional information about the candidate. In the ever-increasing competition among applicants, recommendation letters can play a pivotal role. In this post, we will learn all there is to know about them.

How do recommendation letters work?

  1. Today, most programs use an online applications system, including online recommendation letters. Candidates are supposed to mention their recommenders’ email IDs, to which recommendation request emails are automatically sent. Recommenders are expected to respond to this email by filling in the recommendation forms attached therein.
  2. In most cases, recommendation forms ask a few questions regarding the candidate and request the recommender to grade the candidate on a number of parameters. Sometimes, there are no specific questions, but just a one-page recommendation letter to be uploaded.
  3. The recommendation deadline is the same as the deadline for the application.

Who should write recommendation letters?

  1. Ideally, someone who has known the candidate in an academic or professional capacity is the most suited recommender. Recommendations from family members and friends are not accepted for authenticity concerns. For college admissions, high-school teachers, and for graduate admissions, immediate supervisors are the best recommenders. Candidates can also nominate others in a similar capacity.
  2. Recommendation letters are supposed to be personal statements. Hence, detailed, personalized answers, as opposed to generic answers, are valued more. This necessitates that you select only the recommenders who know you closely and care about your success.
  3. Recommendation letters are to be entirely written by the recommender, without any direct instructions by the candidate. Both may, however, discuss the content in general.

What needs to be covered?

  1. Most of the candidate’s accomplishments have been highlighted in the resume or other parts of the application. Recommendation letters are supplemental documents. Hence, they are expected to talk more about the character of the candidate, than his/her specific achievements.
  2. Recommendation letters seek information about the candidate’s strengths/weaknesses, academic potential, behavior, ethics, motivation, etc. The focus, again, is on knowing the candidate as the person behind the paper.
  3. It is generally a good idea to give specific facts about the candidate than to only mention qualities or skills.
  4. A strong, clear conclusion supporting the candidate is a must-have on a good recommendation letter. Of course, this conclusion needs to be built up through the examples provided in the letter.
  5. The tone of the letter needs to be positive and enthusiastic, yet professional.

Some Samples and Critiques

To get some clarity on the tone and content of the recommendation letters, let’s see a few samples.

A So-So Recommendation

Adele is in the top ten in my class. She is motivated to study. Her character and personality are admirable. She is an excellent student and has above average reasoning ability.


  • Gives no specifics – everything is generic.
  • The writer seems forced to write the letter. No enthusiasm.

A Good Recommendation

Margo has contributed to the school community in many ways, most notably through her participation on the newspaper and yearbook staffs. I am impressed with her aggressiveness, creativity, determination, and ability to schedule extracurricular activities around a full academic workload. I have never heard Margo complain about her workload or refuse any assignment that she has been given.


  • Gives specific facts and skills.
  • The writer seems enthusiastic.

A Great Recommendation

An extremely kind, sensitive, and sensible girl, Grace has had a difficult family situation for a few years now. She provides emotional support to her mother through her battle with cancer without losing her own stability. Such maturity leads me to believe her capable of entering Harvard’s freshman class.


  • Specific, personal information with context.
  • The recommender has a clear sense of the candidate’s capabilities.
  • Enthusiasm, conviction,  and optimism in the writer’s tone.

Now that you know a bit about recommendations, go ahead and research a few more good and bad examples on your own. Develop a sense of what in your profile needs to be highlighted and how. Discuss it with your recommenders and then leave it in their able hands. All the best!

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