In my last post I talked about writing good recommendation letters and also shared a sample of reference letter written by a professor for an applicant who successfully got an admit at Stanford. In my view, a letter of recommendation is the most crucial part of the graduate school application as it gives an insight into the applicant as seen by an authentic and reliable 3rd person. Therefore one has to make sure that the right references from the right people are requested. An average written letter will have a bad impact on your application and will hurt your admissions chances.
Now of course you cannot ask a reference from someone who doesn’t know you well. Also when your referees agree to provide you a reference, it is natural that they will write good things about you. So what makes a letter of reference weak?
Well in my opinion the only thing that makes a reference really weak and is also the single biggest common mistake in all references is that it provides no examples or data to support your traits. It is simply a litany of superlatives and a list of positive things in you backed by no solid proof. Moreover a poor recommendation letter provides things that can already be seen in your resume or transcripts. A good reference letter never reiterates other parts of the application – it in fact gives practical examples of your work and achievements.
So, what is an example of a poor letter? Well here is one.
It is a pleasure to write a recommendation for Ms. XYZ. She was my student majoring in Communication Design in final year session 2003 and now she has become a valuable faculty member in the department of Communication Design, ABC College, Lahore since 2010. Between that period she also achieved a Masters Degree in Multimedia Arts, 2006.
I consider XYZ a natural in the field of communication design. Through her time here she has exhibited the imagination, originality and flair that is required of a person who wishes to be a success in this field. She coupled this natural aptitude very well with a practical and adaptable approach. During this time it became evident to me that XYZ is very perceptive and possesses a wealth of creative abilities. Also, she is always motivated to do something different which is interesting and stimulating for design students. Her approach demonstrates her understanding of the underlying issues of design and design teaching.
XYZ has a great potential to do things very seriously. This is not only because of her natural abilities, but also because of her attitude towards her work. She believes in her work and her ability to excel, but she has never forgotten that it requires a great deal of effort. She is very much clear about her abilities and she is always into trying something new and exploring unusual concepts and materializes them through innovative tools. I think this is a main ingredient of a creative person.
I truly believe that the further specialization will provide her with quality education that will help her realize her potential. She is a very adaptable person with an outgoing, amiable personality. I can recommend her with great confidence for further specialization and advance studies would definitely enhance her creativity and imagination. On her return from further studies, she will surely be an asset for communication design department and a pride for the faculty of this institute.
Additionally, I believe that XYZ’s time spent at a University abroad will provide her with quality education that will help her realize her potential. In the emerging market system in Pakistan, people with solid qualifications are needed to improve the standards of graphic/communication design. With a very low literacy rate in the country, it is also vital to have qualified people who can communicate visually with the masses. XYZ has the ability to help do both these things. Armed with the prestigious degree PhD and an enthusiasm for working in Pakistan, XYZ will be among those who can mould the thoughts and opinions of the uneducated rural and urban masses especially women. In fact, a person with XYZ’s abilities and work ethics should do precisely that and should be facilitated in every way possible.
So why is this letter poor? Well it’s pretty evident – it provide literally NO example or details of the applicants achievements or traits. You want a recommendation letter that goes beyond listing your positive traits. For example in the second paragraph the referee states that the applicant exhibited imagination and originality – the question is how? No example at all. This is as poor as it gets.
A reference which does not say anything about your work and does not offer examples that illustrate your competencies and your aptitude for graduate work is not at all acceptable.