A Primer on Letters of Recommendation

By Moksha Agarwal 2021-08-09



A Letter of Recommendation (LOR), typically 400-500 words in length, is a document that speaks to your skills and attests to your ability to succeed at a given program. LORs are useful as they may (1) corroborate the claims you’ve made in your supplemental essays, (2) present aspects of your personality that aren’t illustrated elsewhere, and most importantly (3) provide a third-person perspective on your candidature.    


But whose perspective do the admissions officers care about? Surely not your father’s. We need someone who can be a little less biased and a lot more objective. For undergraduate applicants, this role is fulfilled by their school counsellors, subject teachers, internship supervisors, art instructors, sports coaches, and in some cases peers. The key here is to curate the right mix.


You don’t want to bombard admissions officers with LORs. In most cases, you’re required to submit at least two LORs—one from the school counsellor and one from a subject teacher. Many universities may warrant a second teacher LOR and most allow applicants to attach an optional LOR in the Other Recommender section. 


While selecting your subject teachers, you must first consider who is most likely to write an insightful and inspiring letter of recommendation. The next step is to strive for diversity. If you are an engineering applicant, don’t submit recommendations from your Math and Physics teachers. Instead, approach your English teacher. This is necessary as most American and European institutions emphasize interdisciplinarity. In fact, MIT requires applicants to submit one humanities recommendation. 


While you’re at it, you should also submit one additional letter from your internship supervisor, art instructor, or coach in the other category. This can shed light on your conduct in a professional environment, your ability to learn new skills, and your performance within a team. You can also use the Other Recommender option to submit a peer recommendation. This, however, must only be done in select cases. Dartmouth, for example, “strongly encourages” a peer recommendation. In the end, your recommendation mix must present a rich, multidimensional, and authentic snapshot of your character. 


Once you’ve decided which LORs to submit, you must start preparing your brag sheets. Think of it as a form geared toward understanding your strengths, weaknesses, growth, and involvement in and out of the classroom. Your school counsellor and subject teachers will bank on this document to structure your LOR. Thus, you must ensure that your answers are detailed and that your claims are grounded in concrete examples. For example, don’t just mention curiosity as a quality, perhaps illustrate it by showcasing your willingness to complete extra readings and converse with your teacher after class. 


If your school hasn’t provided you with a brag sheet format, that’s probably because they want you to write your own recommendation. How do you start? By filling your brag sheet. There are tons of online formats but we recommend using the one provided by Common App: Counsellor Brag Sheet, Teacher Brag Sheet. Now it’s time to structure your LORs. Pick three or four qualities and at least one weakness for each LOR. This is critical because you don’t want all your letters to repeat the same things. Instead, you want each letter to present a different aspect of your personality. As soon as you lock in on your content, you’re ready to write.


Start your letter by establishing your relationship with your recommender—who are they, in what capacity have they known you, for how long. The middle consists of the qualities you wish to illustrate and the weaknesses that you wish to overcome. Both must be explained through examples and anecdotes. You close by providing a summary of why you believe that the applicant is fit to be admitted to a given program. This might be slightly disorienting, but remember that you have to write this letter about yourself in the third person. Here are some examples of good LORs. You can repeat the same process for your art teacher, sports coach or internship supervisor. You’ll be good as long as you’re being specific and not making every recommendation sound like it was written by the same person!