College Recommendation Letters

As part of the application procedure for undergraduate or graduate study every college or university requires a potential applicant to send two or three recommendation letters. A recommendation letter is written by someone who knows you well, within a professional context. The purpose is to provide the admissions committee with a professional assessment of your abilities, competence, and potential for college study. Most recommendation letters are written by former professors who have  taught you in classroom and engaged in activities like research or projects. Some letters might be written by employers who have supervised applicants during their jobs or internships. Recommendation letter is an important aspect of your application process and is crucial for getting college admission.

Every university or college has a specific recommendation form in their college application package. Educational institutions may vary in their recommendation letter format, so it is extremely important for applicants to make the process as convenient as possible for their letter writer or recommender by providing context, direction, guidance and even stamps!

In this section, we adddress few frequently asked questions-

  1. What information is required in the recommendation letter?

  2. Who should I ask to write a recommendation letter?

  3. How should I approach a professor about writing a recommendation?

  4. Should I waive my rights to review recommendation letters?

  5. What if I haven't been in school for years; How can I still get a recommendation?

  6. What potential college applicants must ensure ?


What information is required in the recommendation letter?

The content of a recommendation letter depends on the type of program to which you are applying, and the format used.

The type of degree program to which you are applying usually makes a difference in what your recommender is asked to say about you. Your references may be asked to comment generally on your academic ability or specifically on your performance in a particular field or coursework. They may be asked to comment on your participation in class as well as your performance on exams or papers.

A highly research-oriented program will want to know primarily about your skills as a researcher. If you are applying for graduate study in a profession like counseling, your recommender may be asked to comment on your interpersonal skills. If you are applying for graduate training in a profession, e.g. business, education or nursing, your references may be asked to comment on your work in the field.

Some programs have a form which they ask your recommender to fill out, answering short answer type questions, or asking your references to rank you among the students they have taught. Other programs ask for the same information in an actual letter format. Some programs combine the two: they ask your recommender to fill out a form, and invite them to make general comments in a letter format.

Who should I ask to write a recommendation letter?

This will depend somewhat on what information your references need to provide. If you are applying to a traditional academic program, it is good to have people who have been your instructors write for you. A professional program may ask you to have a supervisor or co-worker comment on your work.

In any case, it is best to choose  people who know you well enough to make specific comments about your ability. It is also important to choose people who will write positive recommendations. It does you little good if your letters contain negative comments about you.

Specific comments on your performance in school or at work are also helpful. If your recommender can write that you consistently "came to class prepared and asked intelligent questions that contributed to class discussion," or "demonstrated foresight and initiative in implementing policy," that will help your cause far more than "Student X was in my class, and did well," or "Ms. Y has been employed here for three years."

Another consideration is the reputation of your recommenders. If you can get a favorable reputation from a professor who is well respected in your field, that will certainly strengthen your application. But if you can get a stronger recommendation from some one with less prestige who knows you better, should you use that instead? This can be a trade-off situation and it can be hard to know which is more beneficial. Specific comments about your work from someone who knows you well can easily be more helpful than a vague positive comment from a more famous person.

How should I approach a professor about writing a recommendation?

Many professors are happy to write recommendations for their students. However, there are five important things to remember:
  1. Having someone write a recommendation is a request, not a right, so ask politely.
  2. Schedule a meeting with the professor to talk about the recommendation letter. Ask if he or she would have the time to write the letter and if he or she would feel comfortable writing a supportive and positive recommendation letter for your college admission purposes.
  3. If possible, inform the professor ahead of time that you are considering applying to different colleges and would like him or her to write a recommendation letter. The professor will likely pay closer attention to your actions and accomplishments and perhaps keep a running file on you to use, when the time comes to draft the letter.
  4. Professors are  busy people, so it is best to ask early, and get any materials (e.g. a recommendation form) to your recommender as soon as possible.
  5. You need positive recommendations, so don't be afraid to ask if a reference feels he /she can write you a favorable recommendation.

Should I waive my rights to review recommendation letters?

The Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974 (FERPA) gives enrolled students the right to view the contents of their files. If recommendations are part of your file, you are entitled to see them along with the rest of the information in your file, only if you are admitted and enrolled as a student at that school.

It is common practice for a recommendation form or instructions to ask the applicant to sign a voluntary waiver of review rights, which means that you are giving up your rights to see the recommendations written on your behalf. The key word here is voluntary. If you feel strongly about it, you may refuse to give such a waiver.

However, there are three good reasons to waive your rights to see recommendations:

  1. It is commonly assumed that your references will be more candid in their statements about you if they know the recommendation will be kept confidential;
  2. If you are not admitted to a given institution, you have no legal right to see the recommendations anyway, unless you are a currently or previously-enrolled student at that university;
  3. If you have chosen your references carefully  then you can be assured that they are going to give you a good recommendation, therefore there is little need to see the recommendation once you are admitted.

What if I haven't been in school for years; How can I still get a recommendation?

If your instructors still remember you and the quality of your work well enough to comment favorably on it, then you will have little trouble as long as they are willing to write letters for you. If they don't particularly remember you and your work, it can be very helpful if you can supply samples of the work you did in the class to help the professor remember your work a little more clearly than simply by checking the gradebook. I would certainly offer to do at least that for any prospective reference-letter writer.

The possibility that you may choose not to go immediately on to graduate school is one more good reason to cultivate and maintain a professional relationship with the faculty at your undergraduate institution(s). Keep up with the field and their research interests. Take opportunities to ask them questions about their work. If you are genuinely interested in their work, it should be easier to get references from them.

What potential college applicants must ensure ?

NOTE: For each of your recommenders', you must have 15 copies of the recommendation letter duly signed and sealed in envelopes.