Universities don’t only care about your grades and resume when they evaluate if you are the right candidate for their Master’s programmes. They also want to know what others think of your work, experience, wit and character. That’s why you’ll often be required to provide recommendation letters for your graduate application.
While some universities provide templates for writing a letter of recommendation, these templates don’t reveal much about what the commission will focus on and how they will evaluate it. But worry not, we’re here to shed some light on the whole affair!
What’s the difference between a letter of recommendation and a reference letter?
In the application requirements, you’ll either be asked to provide letters of recommendation or reference letters. You might think that they are one and the same. Sometimes even universities think so. But, in theory, the two are very different.
- A "letter of recommendation" is required explicitly by an academic programme and should be sent directly to the university by the professor or employer without you seeing it. The document should be 300-400 words long and should present your character, accomplishments and abilities from an objective perspective.
- A "letter of reference" is often given directly to you by the referee and you can keep it for future use. Such a letter is normally addressed as "To Whom it may Concern" or "Dear Sir/Madam".
This is why the recommendation letter is most often required by universities. It is personal and should speak of you in relation to their specific programme.
Who should you ask for a letter of recommendation for your Master’s application?
The short answer is that it depends on the programme you are applying to. Sometimes universities explicitly ask recommendation letters only from professors, or from both professors and employers.
If you have to provide a recommendation letter from a teacher, this document should focus on your academic skills and achievements. If you have to submit a reference letter from an employer, universities expect that letter to reflect skills that are relevant for your Master's.
When asking someone for a recommendation letter it is crucial that you pick the right person. Ideally, you should have known that person for at least six months before asking them for a letter.
Do not, under any circumstance, ask for a recommendation letter from:
- someone who doesn’t know you well enough to vouch for your academic and work experience
- someone who might not write you a favourable recommendation letter
When asking a professor for a recommendation letter, it should be someone with whom you worked closely and who interacted with you, for more than one course. And if you really want to impress the admission committee, you should also pick a professor that is an expert in the same specialisation as the degree you are applying to.
When asking an employer to write you a recommendation letter for your Master’s application, you should pick someone who can provide relevant info for that programme.
For example, if you are applying for a Master’s in a tech-related subject, it is more valuable to have a reference letter from your supervisor in a tech company rather than a reference letter from an employer where you worked in customer service, for instance.
What’s the structure of a recommendation letter?
A recommendation letter is a formal letter, so it is not the kind of document to get creative with. Your recommender should respect the following structure:
- Introduction - Your referee will present themselves and their relationship with you (e.g. professor, employer, etc), as well as their general impression of you and the time they have known you for.
- Content - Your referee will argue why they think you are the best candidate for that Master’s programme, mentioning your educational background, activities, and relevant personality traits.
- Closing - Your referee needs to add a strong closing statement which vouches for your application, followed by a standard closing phrase and, his name, contact details and signature.
So, what are the secrets for an impressive recommendation letter?
1. Get your recommenders to mention diverse achievements
If you have to provide 2 or more recommendation letters, it’s smart to get people to write about two different aspects of your personality, achievements and academic potential. For example, one letter could focus on your research abilities, while the other could focus on classroom performance.
2. Help your recommenders with relevant info
Even if the person knows you, chances are that they do not keep a record of all your academic tests scores and achievements (that would be sooo weird). That’s why you should make it easy for them to write it by giving them information to work with:
- your CV
- a list of your academic achievements and grade point average (GPA)
- a list of your extracurricular/ volunteer activities
- the date by which they should submit the letter
3. The letter should always include examples of things you did
The person who recommends you should not simply list your skills, but also give examples of how and when you used them. It does not help to say that you have good research skills if they don’t give an example of a research project you did.
4. The letter should show how you improved over time
Because the admission officers are well-versed and have seen thousands of applications, a letter that only praises you will sound unrealistic to them. That is why it is very important that your recommender also talks about how you improved over time. Perhaps when you started your Bachelor’s you were shy and not very active in class, but that changed over the years and now you are a great debater with a positive attitude.
5. The tone of the letter should not be too dry
As we said, a recommendation letter is a formal document. But you should not confuse formality with dryness. Admission commissions appreciate when recommendations are formal but personalised. That’s why a strong letter should really speak of YOU and avoid clichés that could be used to talk about any student.
If you get admitted, make sure you thank your referee with a formal note. Who knows, one day you might need his/her help once more!