Before I begin to write about what makes a Letter of Recommendation (LOR) great, and how to write one, I think it’s important to write about how not to write a LOR. To start with, a Letter of Recommendation should not be vacuous i.e lacking in content. This point is really tricky since most vacuous LORs do a really good job at looking nice. They are glutted with fancy words that sound nice to the ears but convey absolutely nothing. Here is an example:
Zaheer is extremely hardworking, outrageously talented and extraordinarily agile. He is a voracious reader with an appetite for scientific knowledge and radiates optimism. He is also a great team player and very kind. While working with me as a teaching assistant, in a short time, he proved his propensity for perfection, which reflected in his work and his work ethic. He is an extremely quick learner, and self-motivated to learn on his own.He embraces challenges and is always ready to explore new things. He is an intelligent and well-rounded individual who challenges himself and actively seeks new opportunities and experiences. He has the determination, maturity, and intelligence to succeed in any endeavor and always maintains a positive attitude. He is committed to his education and will work hard to achieve his goals. I strongly recommend him to your prestigious university.
Needless to say, it presents no concrete proof of the student’s ability and is damaging to both the student and the repute of the instructor.
The first thing to understand about LORs is that admission committees, especially of tier-one universities, absolutely dissect each small detail. They rigorously evaluate both the author and the student in focus e.g. If an author has praised a student for research that sounds really trivial to them, it will be counted as negative regardless of how passionate the praise is. On the other hand, if the author is very credible and has praised a candidate with a low GPA, it does offset the impact of low GPA to some extent.
Now that we have established their significance, let’s see what makes a LOR great.
The most important thing in the recommendation is the recommender himself. His reputation, his past recommendations to the same school, his own research experience and the institution you are coming from- all of this and much more matters. It serves to have a small paragraph that provides insights about the recommender and his contribution to the field.
Great recommendation letters tend to contain concrete evidence about what makes a student tick. If he has done research, what was his role? What new ideas did he bring to the table? What evidence suggested the author that the student is fit for research? How successful (in the author’s opinion) is/ will be the research? and other reasons. If you are applying for a research degree, your research experience will be critical. A negative comment is a definite red flag while a vacuous letter reduces chances in any top-tier school.
If the author taught a course, what grade did the student score? Which book did he use? Did the student complete the course earlier than other students? If you are writing a professional recommendation, tell them about a time when he performed exceptionally well in a technical or program related area. Do not just tell them about his work ethics, leadership qualities, time management, teamwork, and dedication. All these are cliches with no actual value.
A critical part of evaluation might be the comparison of student with the other x number of students the professor has taught or the recruiter has hired. Since it gives insights into where the student actually stands.
A student must remind the recommender of every valuable interaction they had. Most professors actually ask students to send them a list of all the things they think should be discussed. This is a student’s chance at making his LOR great, they should brag as much as they can. Some recommendation letters also contain a small paragraph about the personality of the student, this enables the school to decide if the student is a cultural fit. It helps the student to have a well-rounded personality.
There is another very interesting question that Stanford puts into their MBA admissions LOR guides, it says
Describe the most important piece of constructive feedback you have given the applicant. Please detail the circumstances and the applicant’s response
but it can generally be used by all teachers.
Lastly, if you are a student reading this, who aspires to go to the USA or any top-tier university, work hard to create great work relations with the best professors at your college. There is no replacement for it once you are done with the degree.
Here is an example of a letter of recommendation of a student who secured 100% funding for an MS Program from a top-tier university.
Dear Admission Committee,
I am writing this letter to give my recommendation for in support of his application for graduate program at your university.
I have done PhD in in the area of from , and I am serving as Assistant Professor at for the last 12 years. I have known for over five years now as his course instructor, final year project (FYP) supervisor and an advisor during his Bachelor of Mechanical Engineering. He was one of the best students of the batch, and holds a unique distinction of two gold medals; President’s Gold Medal for best academic performance and Rector’s gold medal for the best final year project. His unique blend of academic and research excellence is evident through these achievements.
Academically, I found to be an intelligent, motivated and hardworking student who actively seeks new experiences which support his love for math and science. I taught three courses; Fluid Mechanics, Manufacturing Processes and Mechanical Vibrations. He showed great command over the subjects and scored ‘A’ grade in all my courses. I was particularly impressed by his performance during Mechanical Vibrations open book exam that most students found extremely hard to tackle. He emerged as an outlier, scoring the highest marks and his exam was a testimony of how well he internalizes concepts that are fairly esoteric to most students. Besides, he actively participated during class discussion, asked questions to ensure that he had a firm understanding of concepts, and sought additional sources for supplementary problem solving exercises.
Convinced by his excellent academic skills and hardworking nature, I agreed to supervise his final year project. Titled ‘Accuracy-Centric Optimal Design & Fabrication of DELTA Parallel Manipulator’, the project was a complete R&D activity and covered diverse areas including robot kinematics & dynamics, accuracy analysis, kinematic error optimization, multibody dynamics, design and fabrication. During his FYP, demonstrated excellent literature reviewing, problem solving, leadership and managing skills. I was particularly impressed by his computer aided engineering skills including MATLAB programming and expertise Multi-Body Motion Simulation tools.
He reviewed over 100 articles from scientific publications including ‘Robot Analysis, The Mechanics of Serial and Parallel Manipulators by L.W. Tsai’ which needed comprehension of complex mathematical models. Based on extensive literature survey, identified a gap in the current research on the optimal design of parallel manipulators, and proposed a novel two-phase design approach for this purpose. Phase-1 involved the optimization of link-lengths of robotic manipulator for desired workspace and kinematic accuracy. implemented the mathematical models for inverse & forward kinematics of DELTA robot in MATLAB. He developed a unique geometric error model for accuracy analysis. Using this error model and MATLAB Optimization Toolbox (Genetic Algorithm), he performed simulations for kinematic error optimization. Based on this research work, we have recently submitted a paper titled ‘Accuracy Analysis of 3RSS DELTA Parallel Manipulator’ for acceptance.
Phase-2 involved multibody dynamic analysis of DELTA robot for optimizing the dynamic accuracy. This task seemed to be difficult at initial stages of project as no one in the department had significant expertise in multibody simulation software. At this point, ‘s ability to pursue research independently was reflected upon me. He showed noteworthy self-learning when he independently learned the MSC ADAMS software by reading from a number of online resources, without significant help from other faculty, and was successful in performing multi-body motion simulations for DELTA robot. This helped us in minimizing the error caused by the deformation in robot links. Later, he also helped one of MS students, working on the stiffness based design of Stewart platform, in performing multi-body simulation using this software.
His dedication for the project kept the other team members motivated as well. He often helped them in their tasks as well. They successfully developed a functional prototype. His hard work and perseverance paid off when the project was awarded Rector’s Gold Medal for best FYP among entire batch of students.
Beyond his academic excellence, demonstrated excellent leadership and volunteering qualities. His major achievements include representing at the International Student Design Competition (SDC) 2014 held by ASME South Asia Chapter. Besides, he has been an active member of ASME and played an important role in organizing various student competitions and workshops.
Overall, he exhibits the qualities of a leader as well as a great scientist who has had ample research experience and excels academically in challenging environment. He is an intelligent and well-rounded individual who challenges himself and actively seeks new opportunities and experiences. He has the determination, maturity, and intelligence to succeed in any endeavor and always maintains a positive attitude. His academic and personal achievements show that he is committed to his education and will work hard to achieve his goals. would truly be a superior addition to the student body at your university. Thus, I strongly recommend him for admission to the graduate program at your university.
Should you have any questions, please feel free to contact me