Letters of recommendation are important; they tell the admissions committee a great deal about who you are, how you think and learn, and how you add to the school community or classroom. And because the information provided in LORs comes from objective third parties, strong endorsements can greatly bolster your application and chances of admission.
I take my clients through a process in selecting and requesting LORs from appropriate recommenders. We hold frank discussions and complete “homework” to make sure the letters highlight students’ applications and align with US expectations. Here are some guidelines if you are looking to do it on your own:
First and foremost, do not falsify your letters of recommendation. It is common practice (in the US as well) to write one’s own LORs and have recommenders simply sign them. Not only is this dishonest, but you run the risk of being denied admission if found out.
It is often obvious when a student has written their own LORs. For example, student-written letters tend to overstate accomplishments. And when you think about it, it isn’t likely that a recommender would list off every single university “must have” in one letter. Student-generated LORs also tend to be “suspiciously similar” - meaning the writing style and content is similar to other documents in the student's application, or the letters are oddly similar to LORs submitted by different students. Admissions committees are apprehensive about Chinese LORs that are written perfectly. They know that most teachers do not write with impeccable English, and they know that Chinese and English writing styles are different.
So, as I just mentioned, do not falsify your letters of recommendation. Instead, try this:
Step 1: Begin by making a list of recommenders who know you well and would be able to touch upon the following points:
• Your academic progress in their class
• Your work ethic
• Your potential for success
• Your intellectual curiosity
• Your interaction with peers both inside and outside the classroom
• Your non-academic interests
• Your uniqueness
• Your leadership abilities
Step 2: Politely ask your first preferred recommender if they would CONSIDER writing an LOR on your behalf. Tell him or her where you want to apply, and explain why those schools interest you. Let your recommender know why you are reaching out to them for an LOR, and why their opinion is important to you and your future success. Tell your recommender that you don’t need an answer from them right away and that, if they want, you will follow up with them in X time (2 weeks, one month, whatever works with your respective timelines).
Step 3: If your recommender says “yes,” request a short meeting with him or her to discuss your experiences, qualifications, goals, etc., as well as what should/should not be included in an LOR. You can find lots of examples online.
Step 4: When you attend the meeting, bring along your CV and/or a document with helpful information.
At this point you can let your recommender know what is typically included in an American letter of recommendation. Recommendations differ between China and the US, and it’s okay to point that out. Consider bringing along sample LORs for your recommender to view.
Here’s what should be included in a letter of recommendation:
• How the recommender knows the applicant
• How long the recommender has known the applicant
• Specific examples and anecdotes of the points listed above (academic progress, leadership, etc.)
• How the applicant stands out from his/her peers
• Why the applicant is a good fit for the college or university
• Concise writing
Here’s what shouldn’t be included in a letter of recommendation:
• False information
• Vague descriptions, such as:
"Student X is a hard work who leads by example” or “Student X is a respectful and diligent learner.” These statements don’t actually SAY anything. Adding specific examples and anecdotes will demonstrate how these statements are accurate.
• Cliches, such as: Goes above and beyond, great student, excellent worker, go-getter, friend to all.
Make sure that you are respectful of your recommender’s time. Do not request a letter two days before it is due, but give him or her plenty of time to write a strong recommendation on your behalf. I always suggest that my clients request letters before summer break, if possible. And don’t forget to send your recommender a thank you letter for their time.
Step 5: If your recommender says “no,” move on to another person on your list. You should aim for three or four recommenders in total.
A few additional points…
1. When submitting your LORs, you will be asked whether or not you want to waive your FERPA rights. FERPA is an acronym for Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, which (in a nutshell) is a federal law granting families and adult children the right to access their educational records. With regards to LORs, this means that students over the age of 18 have the right to view submitted recommendations. It is entirely up to you whether or not you decide to to waive your FERPA rights; however, I always recommend waiving them. Doing so indicates to admissions committees that the information provided by a recommender is truthful.
2. If you worry your recommenders will not write perfect LORs, that’s okay. Remember admissions counselors are wary of this. If your recommenders prefer to write in Chinese, that’s okay too. In this case, have the letter professionally translated. Submit both the original letter and the translated letter with your application.
3. If you are unable to find a single person willing to write an LOR on your behalf, you will have to write a draft on your own. This should be a LAST RESORT. It makes me uncomfortable to even suggest it, but I know it can be nearly impossible for Chinese students to find recommenders. In this case, write your LOR in draft form so that your recommender can alter it if they see fit. Also make sure your recommender is prepared to answer any questions that may come their way from the university admissions board. And, of course, make sure that your letter is written so that admissions committees will believe it is 100% genuine.
Best of luck to everyone!!