Many universities abroad require international students to include recommendation letters in their applications. A recommendation letter offers college admission boards more insight into the kind of student you are – presenting your character, achievements, aspirations, and abilities from an objective perspective.
Unlike reference letters, recommendation letters are usually sent directly to the university from the recommender. Having strong recommendation letters goes a long way in helping you stand out from the competition.
Bear in mind that you’ll be competing for a spot with candidates who may share grades, interests, and activities. You must maximize on anything that will help you to stand out. That’s why choosing the right recommender requires the same effort you’d put into writing your personal essay and other components of your application.
Who Should You Ask for a Recommendation Letter?
The right person to ask for a recommendation letter depends on the program you’re applying to. For instance, if you’re applying to an undergraduate program, the best recommender would be someone who taught you the relevant subject in high school. For graduate school, you may require recommendations from both employers or supervisors, and professors.
Here are some questions to help you select a strong recommender:
What are the Requirements?
Many universities will request only one letter of recommendation from applicants, especially for undergraduate programs. This letter is often expected to be written by a teacher. They might also ask for an evaluation, which may be referred to as a “secondary school report” from a counselor.
Some universities, however, may ask for unique recommenders. For instance, Dartmouth and Davidson ask for peer recommendation from a close friend, relative, or classmate. Students may also have the option of sending supplemental recommendation letters from people such as coaches and employers.
The rule of thumb is to always get recommendation letters from teachers of core subjects for the program you’re applying to. For instance, if you’re applying to an engineering program, ask for recommendations from science or math teachers.
Whose Classes Did You Excel In?
In choosing a recommender, you should also consider whose classes you excelled in – in terms of grades, participation and effort. Which classes did you enjoy the most? Which teacher was most impressed with your grades and participation in class? Where did you surpass expectations with projects, a thesis, or research papers? Where did you demonstrate growth?
It isn’t a must to have had excellent grades for you to have impressed a teacher. You could have impressed them with dedication despite specific challenges.
Consider getting recommendations from teachers who know you in contexts outside the classroom. For instance, teachers who were advisors or patrons of the clubs you took part in can write strong recommendations.
Who Knows You Well?
As we’ve discussed above, the person you ask to write a recommendation letter for you should know you well. While you might have good grades in a certain class, if you didn’t have strong participation, the teacher might not have much to say about you.
You want to select someone who can tell specific stories about you that highlight your strengths and suitability for the program. Consider teachers you’ve had meaningful interactions with. Are they familiar with the challenges you faced? Can they speak to your effort and personality?
For this reason, don’t ask for recommendations for teachers who taught you several years ago. College admissions boards want recommenders who have a current perspective on you.
If you were in a school with a student-to-teacher ratio, and you feel that teachers and counselors didn’t get to know you more personally, it’s a good idea to include a supplemental recommendation.
In any case, you should always provide your recommenders with a “brag sheet” that details your achievements, strengths, goals, significant experiences, and challenges. Doing so will help them write a more detailed and effective recommendation letter for you.
Who Can Write Well?
A recommendation letter isn’t going to compete for a Pulitzer Prize. However, you still need a well-written letter that tells a story about who you are. For that reason, select a recommender who’s known for clear and powerful writing.
Your school counselor might be able to point out which teachers write great recommendation letters. As we’ve noted, make sure to share your resume to guide recommenders on what to say about you.
Who Isn’t an Ideal Person to Write a Recommendation Letter?
It’s unlikely that anyone will write an intentionally bad recommendation letter for your college application. Teachers and professors who don’t want to write you a recommendation, for any reason, will probably decline your request for a recommendation.
That said, there are some people whose recommendations are likely to be weak – which can hurt your application.
Here’s a brief list of people not to ask for a recommendation letter from:
- Teachers who don’t know you well – they’ll only restate your resume as they have little knowledge of who you are.
- The school principal –It’s unlikely that the principal of your school will know you well enough to give a strong recommendation. However, if the principal knows you well, especially if you held significant leadership roles, then go right ahead.
- Teachers in whose classes you performed poorly – College admissions boards want to know that you have academic merit. Recommendations from teachers in whose classes/subjects you performed poorly are therefore not ideal recommenders.
- Teachers who write generic letters – there are teachers and professors who are known to write generic recommendation letters for their students. You want someone who’s going to make the effort to write a personalized letter. That’s why you should ask your counselor about teachers who are known to write good letters.
The Right Time to Ask for a Recommendation Letter
If you’re planning to apply to universities abroad, start your preparations early. For undergraduate programs, you should start preparing as early as your final high school year. Push yourself to engage more and create stronger relationships with teachers you’d like to write recommendation letters for you.
It’s a good idea to ask for recommendation letters towards the end of your final year in high school. That way, you’ll still be fresh on the teacher’s mind. It also means that the teacher will have ample time to write you a strong letter, instead of rushing to meet a deadline.
For graduate and postgraduate recommendation letters, you should approach the recommender at least four weeks before the submission deadline.
Key Information to Provide Your Recommender With
To help your recommenders write a powerful letter that will snag you a spot in a competitive university abroad, provide them with the following information and document:
- A current transcript that details your courses/subjects and grades
- An updated resume or CV
- A copy of your personal statement for graduate school
- A list of your relevant extracurriculars, such as research, internships, or involvement in academic societies
- An outline of your career goals
- A list of the schools you are applying to
- Reminders of anything specific you would like to be included in the letter – such as key accomplishments
- Instructions for submitting the letter of recommendation for graduate school
- The deadline to submit the recommendation letter
If you’ve selected your recommenders carefully, trust them to write strong letters for you. For US universities that use Common Application, you’ll be asked whether to waive your right to view recommendation letters. Experts recommend that you should select “Yes”.
Don’t forget to thank your recommenders once you’ve gotten college admission…and even if you didn’t. Let them know that you appreciate their support.
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