*This post was updated in May 2017 to ensure the content is up-to-date and fresh
Letters of Recommendation are one of the most vital part of any graduate or scholarship application. In Pakistan, students and applicants do not take them very seriously and get these references without any deliberation. While your transcripts, standardized test scores (such as GRE, GMAT, TOEFL etc) and personal statements are central towards deciding the outcome of your application, an excellent letter of recommendation can make up for weaknesses in any of these areas – it gives the admissions committee the information that isn’t found elsewhere in your application.
An ideal letter of recommendation, whether academic or professional, must exemplify your traits rather than just stating them. So who can cover these examples of skills for you? Generally following people fall in these criteria.
People who know you well academically or professionally
The person must have worked with you closely for at least 4-6 months; otherwise they don’t really know your abilities or true potential. It may be a PhD professor of a subject in which you excelled or your manager under whom you did a vital project. If there is no PhD professor whom you can ask, then look for the next best option – but the professor must be able to describe your performance in class or any project with specificity. The most important consideration is to select teachers related to the course in which you are applying. So for example, if you are applying for a graduate program in engineering, then getting references from social science or arts teachers makes NO sense – in this case your recommendation must come from an engineering course/project professor or supervisor.
They should have experience of writing personalised letters
Well this is a common problem nowadays in Pakistan; most of our referees do not have any experience of writing specific letters. Instead most of the references written by professors, or professionals in Pakistan are very generic and they hand these out to “anyone” who comes to them seeking for a reference. If your recommender has never written a personalised performance review in any professional setting, he/she will not be able to speak about your candidacy with authority. The point is to find someone who can deliver a positive but customised review of your skills and potential. They should have knowledge of the norms of letter writing so that it can prevent the letter from being ignored because it is completely inappropriate or generic. I know that this is something very hard to do but either you find someone with that potential or convince your reference to write you a specific reference letter.
People who have worked with you recently
Although not very important but ideally, your recommender should have worked with you in just the last 2- 3 years or even better, still works with you now. This can allow the recommender to include specific examples and anecdotes that are most recent, and are much more powerful than the ones from 10 years ago.
Whom not to ask for letters of recommendation
- You should not get a letter of reference from ‘someone important’ just because you think the person’s name will impress the admissions staff. Do not get them from politicians, actors, and other celebrities unless they know you professionally and can provide specific information about you.
- Do not ask your Head of Department unless he/she has taught or supervised you on a project.
- Similarly, don’t ask CEO or other high ranking professionals for letter of recommendation unless they have worked with you. If the CEO hasn’t supervised you, ask your immediate manager or someone who has the experience of working with you on a relevant task.
- Do not ask your parents or your relatives to write letters.
Many applications request 3 letters of recommendations. In my view, it is better to have 3 very strong letters than to have 4 vague or general reference letters. A quality recommendation will speak volumes about you rather than several vague ones would. Do keep in mind that no one person can satisfy all of these criteria – therefore, aim for a set of letters that cover the entire range of your skills and feats. It is as much important for you to choose right recommenders as it is for them to write you a good letter.
Note: For Fulbright Scholarship Pakistan, you need to submit a total of 3 reference letters. In case you have full time work experience, then at least one of these three letter must be from your employer’s side and at least one of these three must be academic. The 3rd one can be either academic or professional – that’s your choice. In case you do not have any work experience then all 3 letters must be academic references.