Don’t write your own recommendation letters



By Rajkamal Rao 

Go back to Step 7: Finalize your application

3. Don’t write your own recommendation letters. We understand that college professors are too busy to write recommendations and will invite you to write them for you.  It is tragic that some Indian college professors participate - and even encourage - this highly unethical practice.  It defeats everything that we believe in or what a US university stands for.

Let's cover the basics of recommendation letters.  Indian students are often misled into thinking that the higher the rank of the person writing the recommendation letter, the more valuable it is.  So students go through hoops to obtain recommendation letters from Heads of Departments (HOD) and in some cases, even from the college principal.

But what matters to a US university is not the rank of the person writing the letter but the honest professional impressions of the student that the person has formed through direct interactions over a sustained period of time.    A recommendation letter written by the student and signed by the HOD fails all these 4 tests - it is not honest; opinions were not formed by the signer; there were no direct material interactions regarding the recommendation subject and the length of interaction time was limited to the period when the student sought the recommendation letter.

Content in the recommendation letters has to be earned, not bought.  Recommendation letters have to demonstrate, not just tell, through vivid examples.  It is not good enough for a professor to say what is already evident in your marks cards or test scores.  "Aditya Sharma has scored 160 on the GRE Quant test and therefore has strong quantitative abilities".  This sentence is useless because the school can come to the same conclusion simply by looking at the student's GRE score.

Your professor must recount specific examples when you showed leadership of thought, planning or execution.  These examples must outline your significant contributions / accomplishments through action words, such as, "His skills, attitude and hard work in helping us organize our college's annual industry conference were invaluable.  He developed a resource-loaded master project schedule with detailed dates and task dependencies that formed the foundation of our planning effort.  As the faculty in charge of event planning, I received numerous compliments from guests afterwards.  Significant credit is due Aditya Sharma for the success of this conference".

A good recommendation letter should also point out how your contributions as a student exceeded (or fell below) the performance expectations for other students in the peer group.  Not including this vital element is a major drawback of recommendations written by Indian professors.  Each letter we have seen uses superlatives to describe every student - thereby diluting the value of all students.

Finally, a good recommendation letter must present areas for growth and development.  Students are not perfect - and only a professor who really knows the student well can honestly point out areas for improvement.

We generally don't like to provide an example of what constitutes a good letter because this may motivate busy people who write recommendation letters to simply copy and paste the content making obvious changes (such as name of student) and submit the letter as original!  This would clearly be a disservice to the student seeking the letter.  But here is a good link for those who want to see an example.  Notice that the letter conforms to most of the ideas that we state on this page.  Purdue University has an excellent guide to recommendation letter writers about what a good recommendation letter should contain.

With so many international students pursuing studies in the United States, colleges and universities too have been confused.  Outstanding professors around the world may have the best intent in mind when writing their recommendation letters but their inadequate English language may draw a relatively poor picture of the student.  US educational institutions have therefore been at a loss to judge a good, honest evaluation from a bad one.

This is why Educational Testing Service (ETS), the venerable institution that is famous for conducting the GRE and TOEFL exams, has launched an exciting new web based system - ETS® Personal Potential Index (PPI) - to evaluate students across the following dimensions: 
  1. Knowledge and Creativity
  2. Communication skills
  3. Teamwork
  4. Resilience
  5. Planning and Organization
  6. Ethics and integrity
For evaluators, this system is available in Mandarin Chinese and Spanish thereby eliminating the language inadequacy issue for so many international professors.  Most schools that accept GRE scores also accept PPI evaluations.  [Update:  ETS no longer offers the PPI service but the PPI model is still in force].

We recommend that each international student sign up for PPI evaluations as part of the GRE process.  After all, PPI is FREE for students who take the GRE (up to 4 schools are free; additional schools are $20 each).  And whether or not you participate in PPI, make sure that the person writing each of your recommendation letters evaluates you across the ETS dimensions above.  [Update:  ETS no longer offers the PPI service but the PPI model is still in force].

One final trick is to obtain at least one recommendation letter from someone other than your college professors.  If you worked on a project, try to get it from the manager of the company where you performed parts of the project.  If you work for a Non Government Organization (NGO), get it from a senior official of the NGO.  Doing this shows that you not only had a life outside of college but you also developed networks that you are willing to tap to help grow your career.

For additional tips about writing recommendation letters, try this link.


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