LOR Format

How should your LOR be?

The letter of recommendation is, and must sound to be a personal encounter and association of the person with you and can also talk about certain anecdotes, incidents or even narratives. It need not directly say the quality that is being focused but rather tells it with an event that is embellished. The letter must choose a style of writing that is very simple and effective with a very conscious choice of words. At the same time, it should also not sound narcissistic to the admissions committee in any way. It should mention the qualities that can’t otherwise be judged by other parts of the application, it is an opportunity to say more rather than to repeat the already stated. For example, the admissions committee already knows your GPA, work experience, rankings and major achievements; however, they don’t know the story behind how and why the scores are what they are, and how does it make you any different. So conveying it in a positive way is what your LOR must focus on.

So what is the Ideal format for an LOR?

Section 1: Introduction and duration of relationship with referee
Your LOR should explain the relationship the referee has with you, be it as a professor, a HOD or an employer. This immediately reassures the admissions committee that you have picked a person in a position of authority, and have not asked your colleagues to be your referee, which some students tend to do. This paragraph must also mention the duration for which your referee has known you. While your HOD can mention the entire course duration (say, 4 years) any other professor or employer must specify the number of years for which they have been associated with you. So, for example, it should look something like this:
“I am exceedingly glad to recommend Mr. ____________ and have observed that he is extremely talented, knowledgeable, and demonstrates great potential. I am the Assistant Professor of the Department of Mechanics Engineering at SRM University. I have been associated with ____________ for over two years and have taught and mentored him with immense pleasure.”
Section 2: Nature of the relationship
What were the courses your referee taught you, or what were the projects you worked successfully on with your employer or supervisor? As a referee, it is of great importance that you validate the nature of your relationship with the applicant.
“I handled the course on Advanced Control Engineering and found that he was a regular student who always paid attention in class. Although he had in-depth subject knowledge, the quality I admired the most was his ability to practically apply his theoretical knowledge in unique and innovative ways. He implemented his knowledge in the research he was conducting and came up with effective ways to solve complex problems. He has a knack for numbers and understood numerical problems with ease.”
GREedge pro tip:
Your achievements in the classroom or workspace are an important part of your LOR, but while you highlight those, be sure to also mention your comparative performance. Saying ‘XYZ was the class topper in my subject’ is no good unless you mention how big the class was. It is also a great idea to mention your improvements in that area or subject: if you went from being at the bottom 20% in Machine Learning in one semester to be in the top 5% in the next, talk about that.
Section 3: Extracurricular activities and other skills

As mentioned already, your ‘soft skills’ are just as important as your technical and academic ones, so remember to mention those as well. Your extracurricular interests and achievements—be it your excellence as a football player or a painter—should find a place in the LOR, especially if you have won awards and accolades for them.
For example:
“As team lead of his team SRM ASV, he displayed exceptional qualities of leadership, persistence, and diligence to the point of an obsession for perfection. He was a responsible individual who always led his team, ensuring the deadlines were met, mistakes were corrected, and morale was always maintained even in the face of great hurdles. All of his efforts led his team to achieve high recognition from the department and the university. Another fact that is worth a mention is that his team was the only one from India to have participated in the ‘9th International Roboboat Competition.’ His team commendably refrained from the use of any off-the-rack hardware and completely designed, modelled and fabricated ASV’s electronic system instead.”
Section 4: Preparedness for graduate school and referee’s contact details

The concluding paragraph must strongly emphasise on your suitability for the course and how you’ll be a great asset to the university. For example:
“____________ was one of our finest, most versatile undergraduate students and I give him my highest recommendation. He will undoubtedly measure up to your high standards and will be a credit to your institution. I wish him the very best and all the luck in his future endeavours.”
Include the referee’s full contact details, including their institutional email address (if any) and their phone number at the very end. They should be easily contactable if need be.
So, in a nutshell, here’s the format we recommend for your LOR:

  • First, your LOR should not exceed a page. Most universities set a word limit of around 500 words, so stick to that diligently.
  • In addition to a brief intro and concluding paragraph, your LOR must contain no more than 2 body paragraphs
  • The intro para must clearly outline the relationship the referee shares with you, as well as the duration. It’s a good idea to mention how deserving you are of an offer letter in this paragraph, which can also be reiterated in the conclusion
  • The first body paragraph should be a detailed description of your academic or professional excellence in the referee’s class or project. This should be emphasised with a mention of your achievements, and any improvements you may have made in that class.
  • The second paragraph will paint a more general picture of you, and make a mention of your activities outside of class, including any competitions you have won and any team projects you have led. As such, this para will also talk about your leadership qualities, your sense of team spirit, and your passion for the discipline, and strike a balance between your academic and extracurricular achievements
  • The last concluding paragraph must be a powerful assertion of your suitability for the course and university, and how you will be an asset to the institution
  • It should include the contact details of the referee at the very end.

Pro tip: ensure that the tone of the letter is warm and laudatory, and not cold and distant. For instance, the referee should refer to you by your name, instead of just ‘the applicant’. This will make the letter seem more genuine.

Now, who should you approach for your LOR?

The question of who it must be undersigned by is different for each applicant, stream and story. It’s important however to understand that you must share a close equation with the individual, as only then he/she will be able to say the right things about you. While validating the already stated facts with your other documents they must be able to furbish an insight that is not conveyed in your application by any other means.

For a fresher:
You should get an LOR from someone who can relate and vouch for you in terms of your academic background and your journey so far. You can approach a professor, the head of the department, dean or director of the institute you study from. The credibility of their words would be much more than that of a school teacher that once taught you or a professional from the outside world whom you cannot trace a direct link to. If you have prior research experience, then it is highly recommended that you submit the LORs written by your research advisors or supervisors, since having such experience during your undergrad years is relatively uncommon, and will give your application an enviable edge over your peers. Another great referee would be someone who is an authority on the field you wish to work on during your Masters.

For instance, if you want to study Robotics and AI, try to get an LOR from the person who taught you Robotics in your undergrad since they were the one who kindled your interest in the subject in the first place. If you lack relevant experiences, you can also consider asking the manager of the company or firm you interned for, to write you a letter. Pro tip: top schools like Caltech and Carnegie Mellon place heavy emphasis on research excellence and thus tend to favour candidates who have such experience already. Therefore, an LOR written by your advisor will be a superb addition to your application!

For working Professional:
It is always good to obtain the letter from a superior who you have closely associated with at work. It is recommended to ask your employer for a reference only if it has been more than 2 or 3 years since you graduated from college, making it difficult to ask your ex-professors. Your choice to ask your employer for a letter should depend on how well your employer knows you and can assess your academic and intellectual strengths. He/ She must also hold a certain reputation and position in the company that adds to his authority as a recommender. He must not only iterate on your relationship and skills observed as a professional but, also as an overall experience of your character. If you think your employer’s LOR won’t be able to do justice to your talents, then it’s a good idea to go back to your alma mater and ask your ex-professors for your LOR instead. Ideally, the person you are directly reporting to makes for the best referee since they know you on a personal level.

Conversely, if you share a great equation with your superior and believe he/she can write a quality LOR for you, you can get one from him/her and two from professors. This ratio will effectively reflect the consistency of your dedication and skills as something that has endured for a long time. It is better if the person you are choosing as a referee is someone you have worked with for a long time and with whom you have done important projects or fieldwork with, as that is evidence of your hard work and team spirit. Requesting an LOR from a senior employer of the company may be a tempting idea, but again, avoid it unless you know each other really well. Asking for reference letters from a boss or a superior can be stressful, but if done right, it can do wonders for your application.

References who don’t make great referees

Avoid asking ad-hoc or temporary professors unless it is absolutely necessary. Why? For one, the LOR must be usually written on the official university letterhead, which is only given to permanent faculty members. Now, you could submit your LOR without the letterhead, but that would seriously compromise on the authenticity of your letter. Also, sometimes universities could contact your referee to clarify some aspect of the letter. If this happens and your referee is no longer working at your college, it could drastically affect your chances.

Pro tip: Ensure that you share a great rapport with all your referees! This will allow them to write an honest, glowing recommendation for you.

Now that you know what and what not to say in your LOR take a look at some good LOR samples!

Want to know how many LORs you should have for your profile?
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