From job applications to applications for graduate school and medical residency, letters of recommendation are critical to the success of the candidate. Their purpose is simple: to show a personal view of the candidate from a trusted, relatively objective, third party.
What then does the letter of recommendation need to accomplish? First, to establish the authority—and therefore trust—of the one offering the recommendation, and second, his or her unique insight into the applicant’s distinguishing characteristics. You may be the recommender whom the candidate has asked to write the letter of recommendation, or you may be the candidate whom the recommender has asked to write the letter of recommendation for him or her to sign. How do you accomplish this?
Step 1: Use a Professional Format and Layout for the Letter of Recommendation
Nothing will shape how the hiring coordinator or program director will read the letter of recommendation like the format and layout of the letter. It is your letter of recommendation’s first impression, and it will dictate whether it is more likely to be read word for word or simply skimmed or even dismissed. In the same way that the suit or dress you choose for an interview will be the one to make your first impression, the formatting and layout of your letter of recommendation will indicate how much you care about what you are presenting for consideration. The more you care about what you are presenting, the more your reader will care.
Step 2: Open the Letter by Clearly Stating Its Purpose
Once you have engaged your reader’s attention, follow through on the promise you have made with the formatting and layout of your letter by opening with a clear, direct statement introducing the purpose of your letter. Assume that the hiring coordinator or program director has a stack of 1,000 applications to read, and that what he or she will appreciate most is a candidate whose letter of recommendation does not take any more time than is necessary for him to review. Limit your introduction to one to two sentences and get directly to the point.
Step 3: Introduce Yourself and How You Came to Know the Candidate
Once the purpose of the letter is established, the next step is to establish the point of view and authority of the recommender. This is done first by stating the recommender’s title and the position in which he or she came to know the candidate. It can be as simple as “I am the lead attorney in our firm’s labor law department and first met John Rogers when he joined us for our summer internship program” or “I am an attending in the Internal Medicine Department and got to know Jenny Nguyen during her third-year internal medicine rotation.”
When introducing yourself, make sure to include important contextual details to help the reader’s understanding of your position and the environment in which you developed your understanding of the candidate. This also should be a straightforward statement, with something like “The purpose of our internship program is to give third-year law students live training in the core principles of litigation” or “Our hospital is the only Level I Trauma Center in the region.”
Step 4: Candidly Describe Specific Details of the Candidate
After the recommender has established who he or she is and the context in which he or she met the candidate, the reader will be fully prepared for reviewing the details of the recommendation. As with all other parts of the letter, these should be clearly and directly worded. The tone should be objective and professional, and the details that are described should be ones the recommender knows first-hand and are unique to the candidate.
What the recommender describes should be specific details related specifically to the candidate’s personal and professional character, and should show them rather than tell them. For example, instead of simply writing that the candidate “has a passion for teaching,” the recommender should expand on or replace this statement with a specific example, like that the candidate “would often be the first to volunteer to research a particular topic to present to the group, and the presentations were always well researched and insightful.”
This portion of the letter represents the body, or core, of the recommendation and can take as many paragraphs as the recommender needs to communicate the points he or she wishes to describe about the candidate. Each paragraph should have its own subject or theme, and there is no limit to the number of paragraphs as long as they progress the understanding of the candidate and are engaging to read.
Step 5: Close by Summarizing the Candidate’s Character and Offer to Answer Any Questions
One of the greatest challenges in writing a compelling letter of recommendation is concluding it well. However, there are two easy strategies for doing this. The first is to avoid any wording like “In conclusion,” “In summary,” etc. Instead, trust that the reader will know it is the conclusion.
The second strategy is to avoid simply repeating anything that has been previously stated in the letter. The conclusion instead should summarize the candidate’s character in a way that ties together what has been previously described using a statement that does not occur elsewhere in the letter. This will progress the reader’s understanding and give him or her something fresh to read, even if it is just one or two sentences. This should then be followed by an offer of availability to answer any questions the reader might have, without any additional commentary.
A letter of recommendation for PhD aspirants is an important part of the admission documents. While other admission documents like transcripts and scores are factual, LOR is an independent human perspective of the applicant which connects the facts and plans of a resume and statement of purpose. A resume is a list of your accomplishments, transcripts are a proof of accomplishments whreas an SOP outlines the importance and your preparedness for the course. A letter of recommendation for PhD is an independent view on all of the above.
PhD application usually requires at least two recommendation letters. This gives the admission committee an opportunity to know the applicants as a people with skills which would otherwise be difficult to know from their resume, transcripts and SOP.
PhD Letter of Recommendation should mention at least three qualities of the applicant – a social quality and at least two technical or subject related qualities. Moreover, as PhD is an advanced specialised programme, the subject related quality should be focused on projects carried out and specialized courses done which will aid his/her PhD research.
Letter of Recommendation for PhD Students: The need
Recommendation Letters for PhD applicants hold much more importance than for undergraduate or Masters applicants. Grades and GRE scores play a big role in receiving an admit from a university. A Letter of Recommendation (LOR) is usually the deciding factor when choosing between candidates with similar credentials.
Letter of Recommendation for PhD Students: The right person
Before asking someone for a Letter of Recommendation, you should know whom to ask. PhD is purely academic degree and therefore you need to have referees who can vouch your academic inclination and strengths. Referees should be academicians with whom you have worked or someone who has supervised or taught you. Applicants aspiring for a PhD programme should ideally ask their Masters project guide to be one of the referees. Other recommendations should be the teachers and professionals who are from the field or specialization in which you intend to do your PhD.
Friends and relatives are not supposed to write your Letter of Recommendation for PhD for a number of reasons; First, they do not have the first-hand information of the applicant's academic capabilities. Second, as they have not professionally or academically worked with the applicant and their peers, they would not be able to present comparative information of the student. Also, the recommender might not have an in-depth knowledge of the discipline the applicant intends to do a PhD from.
Last but not the least, relatives cannot be objective about the applicant's qualities.
An ideal referee to write Letter of Recommendation for PhD would be a professional who has known the applicant academically for no less than one year. The recommender should not only know you as one of the students at the department, they should know you as a person, your capabilities as a student, as well as your control over the subject they have been teaching. They should also be aware of your future plans.
Academic recommendations can be taken from teachers, supervisors, guides, internship/project supervisors etc.
Letter of Recommendation for PhD Students: Qualities to focus on
PhD recommendations are very subject specific. Referees should speak of strong subject knowledge as well as analysis traits. Letters of Recommendation should show the student as possessing positive qualities like intelligence, self-motivation, responsibility, and amicableness. Emphasis should be given on passion and dedication as well. Advanced study like PhD is often a challenging and demanding program. Therefore, the applicants should also display perseverance, competitiveness and ability to work independently. Courses and knowledge related to PhD programme related packages, extra courses, statistical analysis techniques should be exemplified in the Letter of Recommendation.
Letter of Recommendation for PhD Students: Parts of an LOR
A Recommendation Letter for PhD will typically be between one to two pages. The document should be well differentiated into 5–6 paragraphs. The LOR should begin with an introductory paragraph about the recommender and his/her association with the applicant.
The next 3–4 paragraphs should outline the different academic and social qualities of the applicant with suitable substantiation. No quality should be mentioned without a suitable example.
Finally, the concluding paragraph would be summing up the above with a line recommending the applicant to the programme.
Elements of Letter of Recommendation for PhD
Dear Admission Committee,
About the reviewer association with the applicant.
It is a pleasure to recommend Ms Tenzin Pema for a PhD programme in Psychiatry at [University Name]. I have known Ms. Tenzin for the past two years through her work in my Project titled, ‘Learned Helplessness and Achievements in Adolescent Males and Females’. Pema has completed her Masters and MPhil in Adolescent Psychology from [University Name]. She first approached me two years ago about the possibility of work in my project as a Research Fellow. We had discussed the scope of the project and her job responsibilities in our first meeting.
She had asked good questions and also referred a few Learned Helplessness studies that have been carried out by the students in the Department as their Masters and M. Phil Project. I was impressed by her preparedness for the interview and her inquisitiveness to know more on the subject. On appointment, I often found her in the library looking for other similar studies done. She often discussed her findings with me as well as discuss the course of action and possible evaluation techniques for the project. After a long secondary research, we decided on evaluating our subjects on NEO-Five Factor Inventory (FFI) before the actual experiment. This study examined the psychometric properties of the Children's Attributional Style Questionnaire (CASQ), the 48-item questionnaire designed to assess children's causal explanations for positive and negative events
Quality 2. Leadership skill
During that project, Pema demonstrated the ability to work independently with creativity and enthusiasm as well as effectively lead a team of 3 Project Fellows for sample selection and data collection techniques. She trained the team on all aspects of NEO-Five Factor Inventory (FFI) as well as CASQ. She was also able to collect the CASQ data of more than 50% of the students a year later.
Quality 3. Social and Communication Skill and
Her communication skills put both the subject as well as the interviewer at ease thus facilitating an unbiased and effective data collection. Pema has good clarity on the various data analysis statistical packages especially MATLAB and ANOVA which immensely helped us in doing a comparative study through various methods. She was quick to learn R and use it effectively for analysis. She would be invariably the first person be at the school well prepared for the day.
Quality 4. Team skills
The Project Fellows in the project always had praises for Pema. They always mentioned her patience and perseverance in clarifying their doubts on the standardized data collection and analysis techniques. Pema had doubled her efforts on data collection when she found that one of the project fellows was down with fever and cold. She had not let this effect the Project Schedule.
Quality 5. Creativity and patience
Pema is very creative and patient with the kids. The long questionnaire would be too tedious for the kids so she would often make origami for them as they worked on the questionnaire.
Quality 6. Achiever
Her hard work and perseverance paid off when her paper, ‘Learned helplessness and achievements in pre-adolescent males and females’ was selected for publication in an International Journal.
Ms Tenzin Pema is clearly the best student that I have worked with in the past few years. I strongly recommend her for a PhD programme from [University Name]. She would be an asset to any university she joins.
Department of Social Psychology
A Letter of Recommendation for PhD students gives a human touch to the applicant’s profile. It is the only document which can present the applicant’s social side to the admission committee. Therefore, choose a referee who can not only substantiate your academic strengths but also cite appropriate examples of your social qualities in your recommendation letter for PhD.
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