Studying abroad

How to ask for a recommendation letter?

Recommendation letter is a document that aims to show how others feel about your work, your competences and your abilities.

Along with resume and motivation letter, recommendation letter is considered as one of the standard application documents for the studies abroad. I have covered the ideas for tailoring you CV for the studies abroad application here.

While CV and motivational letters are your view on your accomplishments, recommendation letters show how others see you and what they have to say about you.

The main questions about recommendation letters is who to ask it from and how to ask for it, and I give you my tips.

Who to ask for recommendation letter?

Ask from the professors that know you the best

Ideally, that should be profesor with whom you interacted beyond the regular classroom work. It is not enough that you just had a good grade at the course, because then the letter will be generic.

It is great if the professor is from the area that matches your desired study program. However, it is even more important that you have developed a good relationship with that profesor, even if their field is not a 100% professional match with your programme. Their recommendation letter will be more compelling and more relevant, because they would be able to highlight your personal strengths since they worked closer with you.

Ask to highlight the diverse experiences that you had

If you have to provide more than one recommendation letter, then you also want to diversify the content and highlight different abilities and accomplishments.

When I was applying for my masters program at the university where I currently study, I had to provide 3 recommendation letters. 

This is how I chose which professors to contact: 

  • With one professor, I did a project during a course and later I worked with him on a research project at my bachelors university. With his letter, he highlighted my strenght to work on practical projects, to work in a team with other students and to apply what I have learned in his class on real life projects. 
  • The second letter was from the professor for whom I’ve worked as a teaching assistant – highlighting my teaching skills, ability to explain what I know to others, creativity and professionalism in work. 
  • The third letter was from a professor that gives courses which are considered as core courses for the program where I was applying. This letter showed that I can successfully master the course content and that I actively participate in class discussions.

Academia or industry?

Some universities ask exclusively for recommendation letters from professors. However, if it is not requested that the reference is from the academia, you can ask for it from your internship manager, volunteering coordinator, association president etc. Especially if you have to provide multiple recommendations, having one from industry will bring more diversity into your application and show your strengths in a different environment.

How to ask for recommendation letter?

In my experience, the easiest way is to send them an email that will summarize all the relevant information for your application.

Here we will focus on what that email should contain.

Give a brief introduction for where you are applying

Just write one or two sentences about the university and the program, and give the link for more information.

Remind them of the time(s) you worked together

You want them to be able to give concrete examples of how and where you showed some skills. However, they also work with many other students, so with 1-2 sentences you should remind the professor about the projects where you collaborated. It is important that you craft this part of the email carefully, because if well written, it can give the professor some inspiration for the letter.

Simple reminder example: I worked on an ABC mobile application and got the highest grade in your course AB – 123.

Enhanced reminder example: I worked on an ABC mobile application, from the original idea and requirements definition, up to implementation and testing. For this project I used a technology XYZ for the first time and applied in practice the design patterns that we theoretically covered in your course AB – 123.

Which of these two do you think will help the professor to write a personalized recommendation letter?

Why did you choose them to write this letter?

When I was working on my application, I found a very powerful sentence template:

I thought you would be a great person to vouch for my expertise in [key skill area] and my ability to [impressive result].

Source: here

E.g. …my expertise in mobile application development and my ability to create an application from scratch and turn an idea into a product prototype.

…my expertise in computer architecture and my ability to explain complex concepts in an easy way to younger students.

…my expertise in database systems and my ability to quickly understand novel concepts and apply them in practice.

This sentence is your opportunity to subtly impact the content of the letter, because what you write here will probably be the core strength that the professor will highlight in the letter.

Mention deadlines that you need to respect

How should the letter be sent – by post, by email or uploaded on some website? Is there a specific form/length of the letter? What is the deadline for this? Of course, it is never good to leave very short deadlines, so plan this on time and communicate clearly.

Send your CV

Your CV will help  them get a broader idea of your skills, projects and interests. In the letter they will focus on the examples and experiences when they worked with you, however there is nothing bad if they decide to add a sentence about your outstanding academic performance, sports abilities etc.  

Thank them and be available for any additional questions they might have

You can even propose an in-person meeting, if that would help the professor write a better letter for you.

And in the end, since this might seem like a lot of information to include, make sure your email is not too long and that it is concise and to the point. 

After they send the recommendation letter for you, thank them for writing it and make sure you update them on the progress. If you succeed, this is an excellent networking for future opportunities, And even if you are not admitted, well, considering that they recommended you – there might be some other opportunities to collaborate with them or get recommendations for a job?

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