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Here's How You Can Get the Best Reference Letter

Youíve ensured the best application you can make and now itís down to the reference letter. How do you make sure itís the best you can get? BrainGain magazine tells you how.
BY Mehal Yadav |   03-05-2016

Applying to a college can be a grueling process. More so, if you are trying to apply to a foreign institution. While courses, grades, and standardized test scores are the primary factors when it comes to making an application, there are secondary factors too, which play a more important part than you might think. These typically include a college application essay, extracurricular achievements, occasional interviews, and of course, letters of recommendation. Combined, these elements help the admission personnel judge your application more qualitatively & comprehensively.

Reference letters, also known as letters of recommendation, are written by somebody who knows you. In the letter, a referee demonstrates the applicant’s qualities, capabilities and potential to argue why you would be a good fit for the college you are applying to.

The letter of recommendation is significant because it offers an unbiased, independent view of you from someone who has seen you handle a variety of situations. It goes without saying that this is a chance for an applicant to wow the admissions board.

Most colleges will ask for a letter of recommendation. What makes a good reference letter? Here is what some universities have to say:

  1. Harvard University: “Teachers who know you well and who have taught you in academic subjects (preferably in the final two years of secondary school) typically will provide us with the most valuable testimony. Whenever possible, teachers should tell us about your non-academic interests and personal qualities as well as academic potential.”
  2. Vanderbilt University: “The most compelling letters of recommendation offer information that either expands upon something we have learned from the student’s application or informs us of something entirely new. The best recommendations are not checklists of what the student has accomplished; the best recommendations expound upon these accomplishments.”
  3. University of Texas at Austin: “Letters of recommendation are helpful only when they provide meaningful information about you, offered by someone who can speak of you in an unbiased way. If you choose to submit a letter of recommendation, select someone who is capable of providing a well-written, sincere, personal account.”

Now that the importance of a good reference letter has been stated, here’s your guide to securing a glowing recommendation.

Who Will Be Your Referee?

A letter of recommendation is meant to give an impartial understanding of your character. So, asking a family member, friend, relative to write one is not a good idea. Also, masking a famous person in a bid to make a good impression is not likely to work either unless know you personally. Ask a teacher, former employer or a senior colleague.

A teacher who has taught you subjects which are relevant to your chosen course. So, if you are applying for a Bachelor in Engineering, a recommendation from your Physics or Maths teacher is a better option than one from your English teacher. Make sure your recommendation is enthusiastic and sincere. A lukewarm recommendation is as bad as none at all.

When Should You Ask for a Reference Letter?

It’s never too early to think about your recommendation letter. Try to make a good impression on your teachers right from the beginning. Also, you should request your teachers for a letter well in advance as they may have many others to write. Give them enough time to write a quality recommendation.

How to Ensure the Quality of your Reference Letter?

Help your referee. Tell them about yourself – hopes, goals, aspirations, so that they can understand you better. You can tell them where you see yourself in a few years, and how you feel that particular college will help you get there. Transcripts are useful only as a reference since the college already has that information. Concrete examples are better than generic statements. They should avoid stating the obvious.

What are the key elements of a good Reference Letter?

  1. Salutation: Start with a general “To Whomsoever it May Concern”, if the letter is not addressed to a specific person.
  2. Purpose: State who is being recommended and why.
  3. Relationship: How the student and the referee are connected, and since when.
  4. Qualification: What makes the student a great fit for the college – achievements, character, potential, etc.
  5. Conclusion: Summing up the letter.
  6. Details: Contact details.

Please note, that most reference letters are required to be written on official letterheads.

Once you’re all done with the letter, don’t forget to send your referee (and us?) a thank you note! Best of luck!



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