The ABC of a great LOR

Every year, several students approach me with requests for writing a letter of recommendation (LOR) for them. If a student is known to me personally or if I have taught him/her, I respond positively and invite the student for a personal interview. If a student is not an acquaintance, I politely say, “Sorry, it is not fair on my part to write an LOR for you, as my acquaintance with you is limited.”

Choosing a person who can write a good recommendation is as important as choosing a good university. Photo: AP

A letter of recommendation is a letter written by an academic, administrator, or employer who recommends the applicant for a university study and states how suitable the applicant is for the graduate programme he/she has chosen. Most top colleges and universities abroad require that applicants get LORs from at least three persons, preferably from academics (professors and education supervisors) who have known the applicants long enough and who can write authoritatively about the applicants’ personal qualities, academic achievements and competence. The universities/colleges require that the applicants provide the contact information of the recommenders so that the admission team can contact the recommenders directly via email. Below is a sample from the University of South Florida:

“XYZ has requested that you write a letter of recommendation for admission to a graduate programme at the University of South Florida. By requesting a recommendation through the university’s online application system this applicant has agreed to waive the right to view the recommendation letter that you submit…”

The email communication tells the recommender to maintain confidentiality and not to show the LOR to the candidate or anyone else.

An LOR carries weight and plays an important role in the application screening process. The applicants’ personal qualities, abilities, aptitude, preparedness, research experience, and so on can be known through LORs whereas their other skills (proficiency in the English language and knowledge in the core subjects) can be assessed through standardised tests such as TOEFL, IELTS, GRE and GMAT.

Some universities give guidelines to the recommender on what should be focused in the LOR. Here is a sample from San Diego State University:

“Please upload a letter of recommendation. Please include any comments you think important concerning this applicant. We would especially appreciate your comments about (a) the applicant’s work prospects; (b) the relevance of graduate work to the applicant’s future; and (c) the applicant’s intellectual ability and capacity for advanced graduate work.”

In the light of this, it is fair to say that an LOR is a true reflection of an applicant’s self in the form of a letter sent to a university’s admission team for the trust it has placed in the recommender.

For applicants, choosing a good recommender is as important as choosing a good university. How to choose one?

The applicant should have known the recommender long enough and be in good terms with him. The purpose is to get a good LOR that will have a positive impact on the admission team. The first rule is “Choose a person who has a good opinion about yourself and who you think will provide a good recommendation for you.”

The applicant should choose a recommender who is either an authority in his/her field of specialisation or holds an important position as the admission team considers the LOR favourably if it is written by an experienced academic. The second rule is “Approach a senior professor or an experienced academic who is known for their academic calibre for your LOR.”

The applicant should know whether the recommender will be able to complete and submit the LOR in time. A busy academic, sometimes, may tell the applicant that he/she will write an LOR but may fail to submit it in time when the university wants.

The third rule is “Constantly follow up with the recommender and gently remind and check with him/her whether he/she has prepared an LOR for you and replied to the university.”

The fourth rule is “Maintain a professional relationship with the recommender.”

A good recommender

Gathers all relevant information from the applicant through a personal chat and also verifies the academic certificates and transcripts.

Is honest in their views about the applicant. He/she does not exaggerate facts.

Is not influenced by the recommendee. Some students try to influence the recommender by asking them to write the LOR in a way they want.

A good recommender maintains confidentiality. LORs are not to be shown to the applicant. The candidate waives her right to view. The recommender is contacted by the university and asked to upload the LOR to the college site.

Writes LOR on his/her own and, if needed, gets it corrected by someone who is not known to the applicant.

Does not expect any favour from the applicant for writing an LOR.

Positive language pays

A good LOR should not exceed one page or 500 words. It is important to use positive language throughout the letter. It has nine parts: Intro, Acquaintance, Positive attributes, Academic achievements, Specific skills, Work and research experience, Psychological maturity, Recommendation and Positive closing.

The first of a part of an LOR is a good introduction that sets the tone of the letter and attracts the attention of the reader. Phrases such as ‘pleased to write’ can do wonders. In the second part, the writer should explain how long he/she has known the candidate and in what capacity.

In the third part, the recommender lists some relevant positive attributes of the applicant.

In the fourth part, the recommender discusses the academic achievements of the applicant. In the fifth part, the recommender highlights some of the skills the applicant possesses and has demonstrated on different occasions.

In the sixth part, the recommender mentions the research/work experience of the applicant.

In the seventh part, the motivation and maturity level of the applicant and his/her preparedness for the graduate study should be mentioned.

In the eighth part, the recommender should support the candidate’s application and uses the word ‘recommend’.

As in any correspondence, it is important to close the letter with a positive note. In the final part, the recommender closes the LOR with a positive note and provides his/her contact details which include his/her email address and phone number. A good letter of recommendation can do wonders if written with honesty and not decorated with pomposity.

The author is professor of English and head, Higher Education at KCG College of Technology. Email:

Keywords: letter of recommendation, study abroad, how to select a recommender, university application

Posted by on February 11, 2016. Filed under Education. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.