Crafting a Stellar Postgraduate Academic Letter of Recommendation

Grad school recommendation letters are an essential part of every graduate school application package–even in this (almost) post-COVID era of remote work and Zoom classes. Nearly all applications to graduate school still require at least two recommendation letters from individuals who can discuss your abilities, competencies, and personal character in a coherent way and recommend you for admission to graduate school.

Many referees have difficulty writing these recommendations themselves (for language issues or simply because they are busy) and some rely on the applicant to pen the draft of the letter and receive confirmation before submitting it to the graduate school. But regardless of who is writing the letter, there are a few key elements the recommender needs to include to craft a stellar recommendation for their graduate candidate.

A postgraduate academic letter of recommendation is one of the most important documents in a student’s graduate school application. As someone writing this letter you have the power to greatly influence an applicant’s chances of admission. At the same time writing an effective letter of recommendation can be a challenging task. In this article, I’ll provide tips and strategies to help you write the best possible letter for your student.

What is a Postgraduate Academic Letter of Recommendation?

A postgraduate academic letter of recommendation is a formal letter written by a professor, academic advisor, or someone else familiar with the applicant’s academic work It describes the applicant’s qualifications, abilities, and potential for success in graduate school.

The letter aims to validate and expand on the student’s own application documents like transcripts, resumes, and personal statements. It provides an external perspective on the student’s capabilities from someone in a position of authority.

Admissions committees rely heavily on recommendation letters to gain insights about applicants. A thoughtful, well-written letter can boost an applicant’s chances, while a generic, vague letter can raise concerns.

Who Should Write the Letter?

The best recommenders are professors or academic advisors who have interacted closely with the applicant. They should be able to provide specific examples of the applicant’s achievements, abilities, work ethic, and potential.

If possible, choose recommenders who:

  • Taught courses relevant to the applicant’s graduate program
  • Supervised research projects or thesis work with the applicant
  • Advised the applicant on academic matters over multiple semesters

Letters from outside academics carry less weight but can still be useful if the recommender knows the applicant well and can discuss relevant skills.

What to Include in the Letter

A letter of recommendation should highlight the applicant’s strongest qualifications and potential for graduate study. Focus on their:

  • Academic abilities: Analytical skills, critical thinking, retention of knowledge, ability to synthesize complex information. Cite high grades in relevant courses.

  • Research skills: Familiarity with academic literature, ability to design and conduct original research, data analysis capabilities. Note any thesis work or published papers.

  • Communication skills: Writing competence, public speaking abilities, clarity in expressing complex ideas. Provide examples if possible.

  • Relevant work or extracurricular experience: Internships, assistantships, science labs, journal editing, etc. that provided relevant knowledge and skills.

  • Interpersonal abilities: Leadership, collaboration, independence, work ethic, time management, persistence. Use anecdotes to illustrate these qualities.

  • Potential for success: Assess the applicant’s ability to handle advanced coursework and research required in graduate school. Comment on their ambition, creativity, and intellectual curiosity.

Back up claims with specific examples of the applicant’s accomplishments whenever possible. This adds credibility to your letter.

Letter of Recommendation Format

Though recommendation letters can vary in format, they generally follow a standard structure:

  • State who you are and your relationship to the applicant. Include your institutional affiliation and position.

  • Confirm that you are recommending the applicant for graduate study at X university in Y program.

  • Provide an overall endorsement of the applicant and highlight 1-2 top strengths.

2. Body Paragraphs

  • Elaborate on the applicant’s key qualifications and achievements, using specific examples. You can organize by themes (research skills, communication abilities) or chronologically.

  • Keep paragraphs focused – each one should highlight a specific skill or accomplishment.

  • Summarize why the applicant is an exceptional candidate worthy of admission.

  • State your confidence that the applicant will thrive in the program and contribute meaningfully.

  • Offer to provide any additional information needed. Thank the reader for their time.

Helpful Tips for Writing Letters of Recommendation

Here are some tips to write the most persuasive letter possible:

  • Be specific: Vague, generic praise won’t help the applicant. Provide detailed examples of their skills and initiative.

  • Use numbers: Quantify accomplishments when possible – GPA, class rank, scores, etc.

  • Compare to peers: If you can, note how the applicant compares to other students you’ve taught.

  • Know the program: Understand the graduate program’s focus and requirements so you can highlight the applicant’s relevant skills.

  • Focus on potential: Graduate admissions emphasize an applicant’s potential for advanced study. Emphasize this in your letter.

  • Be honest: Never exaggerate accomplishments or abilities. Dishonesty will hurt the applicant.

  • Proofread carefully: Avoid errors that could undermine your credibility. Have someone else review the letter if possible.

Requesting the Letter

When requesting a recommendation letter, provide the professor with:

  • A resume or CV summarizing your background

  • Your personal statement or drafts of application essays

  • Transcripts and information on relevant coursework/grades

  • Details on research projects, publications, or other relevant experiences

  • A description of your goals and the graduate program you are applying to

  • All necessary information and forms to submit the letter

Give them at least 3-4 weeks notice before deadlines to allow proper time to write the letter. Follow up politely to confirm they can complete it on time.

Finally, always send a thank you note showing your appreciation for their effort and support. This is important professional courtesy.

A compelling letter of recommendation can truly boost an applicant’s chances of graduate school admission. As the recommender, your goal is to validate the student’s own claims about their abilities and potential, while adding authority and credibility to their application.

By following the strategies above, you can craft an effective letter that will highlight the applicant’s qualifications, distinguish them from other candidates, and increase their likelihood of acceptance. Your thoughtful endorsement can help launch a student into the next phase of academic achievement.

postgraduate academic letter of recommendation

Demonstrating evidence of student’s character and skills

  • She/he has shown herself/himself to be a true leader who is able to successfully develop plans and implement them in his/her work.
  • {Student} demonstrated his/her independence daily, completing difficult lab exercises by researching outside of class.
  • During his/her internship, {Student} consistently managed his/her work responsibilities diligently and learned quickly. For example…

Who should write a recommendation letter for graduate school?

Choosing which professors, supervisors, or advisors to request a graduate school recommendation letter from can be somewhat overwhelming. Should you choose someone who does not know you personally but who has connections to your target graduate school? If a famous professor writes you a grad school recommendation letter, will this automatically give you an advantage with the admissions committee?

In general, graduate recommendation letters should come from people who know you well, who respect you enough to say glowing things about you as a student and researcher, and who hold positions in school or work that are above your own. At least one letter of recommendation should be submitted from a past or current professor or academic advisor.

Another could be from someone in a slightly different role, including an employer, a research adviser, a senior colleague, or a professor from a different department or kind of class (e.g., a discussion class professor instead of a lecturer). No matter who it is, the recommender should know the applicant and recognize their accomplishments. It also helps if the recommender understands some details about the program to which their candidate is applying.

Here are some guidelines to follow when choosing who to ask for letters of recommendation for graduate school. Select someone who:

  • Knows you well and can answer positively. Choose an individual who you have spent time with outside the classroom if possible. They should also be familiar with your career goals and hold a favorable view of you.
  • Has known you for quite a while. A recommendation letter for graduate school carries more influence if the person has known you for months or years instead of months. If you can, find someone who knows you from various contexts, such as a professor who is also your advisor.
  • Can speak to your strengths in relation to your graduate program. Choosing a finance professor to write your recommendation letter for an MBA program would be a good idea because they can write about the qualities that will aid you in pursuing an MBA (qualities you can also include in your MBA essay) and a broader career in business.
  • Has substantive stories to share about you. Who was fortunate enough to see you succeed in an academic, extracurricular, or professional setting? Having someone write your LOR who has good stories to share about you is certainly going to benefit you more than someone whose class you took with two hundred other students.

Elements of a strong recommendation letter

Do you need a recommendation letter for Graduate School?

Nearly all applications to graduate school still require at least two recommendation letters from individuals who can discuss your abilities, competencies, and personal character in a coherent way and recommend you for admission to graduate school.

How long is a graduate school recommendation letter?

Since a graduate school recommendation letter typically consists of three main parts, the opening paragraph, the body paragraph and the conclusion, it’s usually about a single page in length. Does it matter who writes a graduate school recommendation letter?

What is a letter of recommendation for a graduate research program?

For research programs (MPhil, DPhil, PhD, Research Master’s), graduate admissions committees are looking for evidence of your potential as a future researcher. Since this is tricky to assess from test scores and transcripts, letters of recommendation are often the most important part of a graduate research program application.

What is an academic recommendation letter?

An academic recommendation letter is a document that details a student’s academic achievements, character and goals. Teachers, guidance counselors, school administrators, club organizers and coaches often have ample evidence of a student’s capabilities.

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