How should your LOR be?
So what is the Ideal format for an LOR?
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.
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.
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:
- 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?
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
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!