Edited 9/9/21

Introduction

As we are nearing the end of the summer, grad school application season is starting and requests for letters of recommendation (LORs) are ramping up. It’s been a while since I wanted to share some perspective about LORs, with the hope that it would be helpful to students (and potential future grad school applicants).

In this article, I will mainly focus on LORs for grad school since they’re the type of LOR for which I personally receive the largest amount of requests.

What is an LOR today?

Nowadays, an LOR for a grad school application is actually the combination of two parts.

The first and most well-known part of an LOR is intuitively the letter itself. Since this letter is meant for a professor to engage their name and vouch for the applicant, writing it is a rigorous task that can often take an hour or more, depending on what the professor has to say about the applicant (the longer the better!).

A letter typically starts by the professor introducing themselves and explaining the relationship they have with the applicant: i.e., how long has the professor known the applicant, what classes the applicant took with the professor if any, etc. Next, the professor usually states the applicant’s academic achievements, such as the grade and rank the applicant received in each of their classes. Last but not least, the professor discusses the applicant’s personality, their remarkable achievements (e.g., if an applicant showed great programming skills by getting 100% in all the class projects, they might mention that), and all the relevant and interesting interactions they had with the applicant. This last section of the letter is undoubtedly the most important one because it truly focuses on the applicant’s unique strengths, told from the professor’s point of view.

The second and less familiar part of an LOR usually consists of an online form that grad schools ask the professor to fill out. This form is meant to compare the applicant against other similar students on various metrics, such as intellectual curiosity and zeal, honesty and integrity, responsibility and punctuality, demeanor and personality. Here is what a real online form can look like:

Grad school form

As one can already notice, a professor has to know the applicant pretty well in order to adequately complete an LOR for them.

What about basic LORs?

Back in the day, when only the letter part of an LOR was required for grad school applications, it was sometimes possible for professors to be a bit more flexible. For example, if an applicant who had received a high grade in their class but whom they didn’t know well approached them for an LOR, a professor could still choose to write a letter that simply stated their academic performance (i.e., final grade and class rank).

For prestigious institutions, I don’t think that a basic letter has ever been appropriate because it shows that within 4 years of undergraduate education, an applicant was not able to actively connect with faculty and/or to achieve remarkable academic work; at least not enough to receive genuine support for their application.

For some middle-tier institutions, a basic letter probably used to be acceptable. It didn’t really help an applicant’s case, since it mostly repeated what could already be found in their transcript, but it wouldn’t hurt their application either.

Today, basic letters are hardly possible anymore, mostly because of the additional online form about the applicant’s personality that most grad schools request professors to fill out. The recent introduction of these forms may actually have been motivated by the uselessness of basic letters, whereas these forms require professors to be familiar with the applicants they recommend.

In the current system, if a professor submits a basic letter that only repeats information found in the applicant’s transcript and then can only answer n/a to all the form’s questions –because they truly don’t know the applicant well-enough– then the LOR as a whole will most likely be detrimental to the application.

Approaching the right professor

The right professor(s) to approach for an LOR request is people who know the applicant and their achievements well, and can discuss meaningful interactions they had together.

The vast majority of students who contact me to request an LOR unfortunately do it the wrong way, as their initial request always focuses on how they enjoyed taking my classes. Don’t get me wrong, I like being complimented for my work; but an LOR request should be about the applicant themselves, not about me!

When an applicant approaches a professor for an LOR, the main focus of the request should be on convincing the professor that they are the best person to talk about the applicant. For that, the applicant needs to remind the professor of their academic achievements in the professor’s class(es), of all the relevant interactions they had together, and any other pertinent details.

How do I maximize my chances at getting a great LOR?

The work of getting great LORs starts way before being a grad school applicant and submitting requests to professors. A request can only come after an applicant has established a meaningful relationship with a professor.

Students should therefore develop connections with professors while they’re in school. This can be done in various ways, but the most common are: going to professors’ office hours and to events attended by professors, asking questions about the class materials or about career development, asking further feedback on their classwork, etc. Anything positive that will make a professor actually know who the student is, and remember it later.

Conclusion

From everything explained above, the bottom line is straight-forward:

If a professor doesn’t know you personally, they probably won’t be able to write a (good) LOR for you.

The process of requesting LORs for your grad school applications starts years before the actual applications. It starts by developing meaningful and positive relationships with professors, who will then be able to vouch for you when the time comes.