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Study Abroad: Reference letters that improve your chances

Last updated on: November 23, 2012 12:43 IST

Study Abroad: Reference letters that improve your chances

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Rather than choose someone because of their stature in a professional field, ask for references from an individual who you've impressed and who will therefore write a good letter for you says Linda Kaiser, former director of Career and Programme Support, University of Missouri.

Letters of recommendation should speak positively about you and your abilities and be written by someone who has known you for an extended period of time and has relevant expertise for the position to which you are applying.

Throughout your studies, there should be faculty members with whom you have had a great deal of contact and who know your abilities and goals.

Rather than choosing someone because of their stature in the field, it is best to ask someone who is impressed by you and will, therefore, write a good letter for you.

Dear Readers, have you ever studied at an international university? What was the experience like?

Which country and university did you go to?

Was the country student-friendly? Did it have a multi-ethnic culture?

What were your greatest learnings there? How did foreign education contribute to your success and what advice would you like to share with students who aspire to study abroad?

To share your experience and advice, write in to us at studyingabroad@rediffmail.com (Subject Line: 'My Study Abroad Experience') and we will publish the best responses on rediff.com

Please click NEXT to continue reading...


Photographs: Courtesy Careers360.com

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Make a pitch

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When asking for a letter, be sure to let the prospective writer know why you are applying for a particular position/award and ask them if they will support you and recommend you for that position/ award.

Supplying a packet of information to them ahead of time and sitting down with them for a meeting will help you and the prospective writer(s) decide if they are the right person for the job.

In the materials and the meeting, speak well of yourself and stress your strengths.

You should make the case that you deserve of the position/award.

Illustration: Dominic Xavier




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Choose the right person

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Remember that letters should take a great deal of time to write, so be confident that the person you have asked wants to write and will write you a good one.

Letter writers should be given at least four weeks to write and send off the letter.

You may give the writer a reminder approximately 10 days before the letter is due, but should not ask to see it.

If you have any reservations about a letter writer, you should probably not have them write it and may want to ask them to suggest someone else.

If you are asked to write the letter, which your writer will then sign, consider whether you have asked the right person.

If you have a troubled relationship with your advisor, especially the chair of your thesis or dissertation committee, make sure you get a senior member of your department to write a letter that addresses that situation directly or indirectly.

If you cannot do so, then you should address the situation yourself.

Illustration: Uttam Ghosh




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Content of the letter

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The language should be formal and in the writer's best prose. Written on a letterhead wherever possib#8804 it should give an overall picture of the candidate's:

  • Personal characteristics
  • Performance
  • Experience
  • Strengths
  • Capabilities
  • Professional promise

Recommenders must try and avoid vague statements and any statements of opinion shoul be clearly identified and explained. Faint prose and unflattering remarks about the applicant can have a negative implication and may destroy the applicant's ability to obtain the position and award.

Illustration: Dominic Xavier




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Parts of recommendation

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The letter should be one page in length and generally consist of three parts: opening, body and closing

In the opening, the writer should explain the relationship between himself/herself and the candidate, as well as why the letter is being written.

For example: Ms Sneha is completing her thesis project under my supervision. I am very much pleased to be able to provide a letter recommending her for a graduate programme.

The writer may describe the type of experience, length and time period during which s/he worked with the candidate. S/he may also describe any special assignments or responsibilities that the candidate shouldered.

The body must provide specific information about the candidate. Information may include

  • Personal characteristics such as poise, confidence, dependability, patience, creativity etc.
  • Teaching abilities such as knowledge of the subject area, problem solving abilities, ability to manage students, ability to work with colleagues and parents, curriculum development etc.
  • Specific areas of strength or special experiences. The candidate may have exceptional strengths such as high energy level or excellent communication skills. A candidate may also have a specific area of knowledge or experience such as a strong background in science, an undergraduate degree in another area or related work experience in education, a research project, coaching, extracurricular activities etc.

The closing should briefly summarise previous points and clearly state that you recommend the candidate for the position, graduate programme or opportunity s/he is seeking.

The letter should be written in language that is straightforward and to the point.

Avoid jargon or language that is too general or effusive.

Illustration: Uttam Ghosh




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Customise your letter

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If someone is offering a reference for you, s/he is doing you a favour. You should make it easy as possible for him/her to complete the task.

Provide a copy of your resume and a signed written waiver that allows the letter to talk about your academic work.

At the same time, it is best to have letters specific to each position/award.

If there is a scholarship programme summary, job description, or expectations about the position, provide a copy of those. In addition, you should provide references with stamped, pre-addressed envelopes for the writter to send the letter.

It is worthwhile to have these letters in your career services placement file just in case.

For each letter, you should write a thank-you note and keep the writer up-to-date with what you are doing, as you will likely want them to write another letter in future.

Before you write the thank-you note, check to make sure that the letter has reached its destination.


Photographs: Courtesy Careers360
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Information that must be included in the letter

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  • Any required forms with appropriate signatures
  • A resume that includes current name, address, e-mail address and phone number, GPA, major(s) and minor(s), list of professional organisations/honour societies, awards, activities, skills, work experience
  • Statement of purpose
  • Description of short-term and long-term goals
  • Course list with grades earned
  • Titles and abstracts of research papers,  exams(s), and/or lab reports
  • Specific documents, such as papers, graded by the letter writer
  • All information already provided to the organisation (employer or graduate school etc.)
  • Information about specific ways the applicant approached given situations/problems
  • Feedback from others, such as copies of teaching evaluations when applicable

Illustration: Dominic Xavier




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