Guide to the Letter of Recommendation for MS Programs

Have you never received a recommendation letter before? A letter of recommendation is an essential part of your university application, so it goes without saying that you need a strong one. Our editors share the best strategies on whom to ask for a recommendation, how to ask for one, and what should be included in your letter of recommendation. To give you a better idea of what it takes, we’ve also included samples.


Get your recommenders to write about different things
How to write a Letter of Recommendation
Sample LOR for MS in Computer Science

Why do you Need a Letter of Recommendation (LOR)?

Getting into a top-notch graduate program is one of the best things you can do for a better career and successful life ahead.

Schools just don’t want to rely on grades, test scores and resumes as a means of determining the quality of your application. They want to see how well others speak about your work ethic, experience, intelligence, and personality. They would like to see how well professors, past and present employers, and other academic faculty feel about your credentials and abilities.

Letters of Recommendation are required for almost every graduate school application and are a very important part of the application process.

Usually, when it comes to your application, grades and test scores factor in most heavily. However, your letters of recommendation could be the deciding factor in the admission process.

Many top graduate schools ask candidates to send in at least two to three letters of recommendation along with their graduate school application. Some universities may also provide templates to use for writing a graduate school letter of recommendation.

Whom to ask for a recommendation

If your target school requires you to send letters of recommendation, you better ask the right people to write your recommendations.

Do not ask professors, former supervisors or other individuals with whom you did not develop a serious relationship.

Most professors will not write a letter of recommendation if they do not know you well enough to vouch for your academics. You don’t want to ask your supervisor, who you barely know, for a recommendation. You may want to avoid asking your uncle as he may not be able to write much about you in a professional capacity. The family connection also downplays the value of this recommendation in the eyes of the committee as there is always a chance of bias.

You should have known your recommenders for at least six months to a year before asking them for a recommendation. There is a strong likelihood that if someone agrees to write you a letter of recommendation that he will speak highly of you.

The best letter writers are those that know you well and can provide an evaluation of your ability to perform and succeed at the graduate level.

Let’s take a look at those who would be the best letter writers according to inputs from those that have been part of admission committees:

  1. Someone who knows you well
  2. Someone with the title of “Professor”
  3. Someone who is a professor at the school granting your baccalaureate degree
  4. Someone who has earned the degree, which you are seeking in your graduate work
  5. Someone with an advanced degree, who has supervised you in a job or internship aligned with the graduate program you are pursuing (e.g., Public Health, Social Work, Business Administration, etc.)
  6. Someone who has academically evaluated you in an upper-division class
  7. Letters from family, friends, and the like are discouraged and, in fact, may be detrimental

If you want to seriously strengthen your graduate school application, you should seek recommendations from individuals who have a longstanding history and reputation within a university and/or community.

Politicians, published professors, prominent lawyers and other civic leaders are also good sources of recommendations.

This is not to discount relatively unknown people, but there is a strong likelihood a graduate program will like your application if a high profile individual has written a letter of recommendation for you.

Finally and most importantly when soliciting someone to write a letter of recommendation, it is important to let these individuals know what your educational intentions are, the program you are applying to and other key pieces of information that they can use to write the best letter of recommendation possible.

Get your recommenders to write about different things

In most cases, your professors will already have an idea of what they want to write about you, but if by chance they do ask you about what you would like them to discuss in your letter of recommendation, you could get them to highlight different achievements or personality. For example:

  1. Professor 1 can talk about your achievements during your project. For example, your project led to a patent filing or your project was commercialized to a product worth $10 million in yearly sales.
  2. Professor 2 can write about your classroom performance. For example, you were a hard-working and sincere student and were among the top 10% of your class.


Give your recommender at least a month

Approaching your recommender at the last minute and forcing him to write your recommendation would get you a weak LOR that would lower your chances of admission. Your recommenders need enough time to study and analyze your candidature and eventually write an impressive and convincing recommendation letter.

Plan your application process so that you give your recommender at least one month to submit the recommendation.

Tips for Indian students

In our experience, many of the schools are skeptical of LORs from Indian students.

Admission team members at those schools evaluate thousands of applications and LORs during each admission session.  Most of them have been evaluating applications for years and are very good at detecting if the same person has written the essay or statement of purpose and letters of recommendation. They can also find out if the recommendation is shallow and fake. They can also clearly see inconsistencies between what is being said in essays or your statement of purpose, your scores and the letter of recommendation.

So, don’t hinder your otherwise strong application with a questionable letter of recommendation. Don’t write your own letter of recommendation – you will compromise your chances of a successful admission, especially at the top schools.

If your professor or supervisor doesn’t have the time to write your recommendation or if they are not sure what to write about you, you can refer to the section above – Whom to ask for a recommendation, again. Perhaps you have not chosen the right individuals to recommend you. In these cases, don’t focus on their designations, as what they write about you matters a whole lot more.

Spend some time shortlisting your recommenders. Explain to them why a genuine recommendation is important for your graduation application. Share the tips and samples that I am going to write about and ask them for a couple of hours of their time to write a recommendation letter for you.

How to write a Letter of Recommendation

Unless specified, an LOR is a 400-600 word letter, which tells the reader about your strengths and weakness, or rather, areas of improvement.

The LOR should mention the nature of association that you have with your recommender.

LOR on letterhead: Most of the universities require this letter to be on the official letterhead. If you are getting a recommendation from your professor, tell him to write it on his university’s official letterhead. On the other hand, if your supervisor is writing a recommendation, she should write on her company’s official letterhead. In case your supervisor has moved to a new company, she can write on the letterhead of her new company.

Substantiate with examples: Your recommender should substantiate all his observations about you with appropriate examples and evidence, preferably backed with data. For example, rather than writing “you were the best student in the class”, your recommender should write “you were consistently among the top 10% of your class for all fours years of your undergraduate program”.

Don’t miss areas of improvements: Going beyond praising you, your recommender should also write some areas of improvements as nobody is perfect. They should avoid writing generic and shallow areas of improvement such as, “Being a perfectionist, he ends up pressurizing himself as well as his team members”.

Avoid dry tone: Although an LOR is a formal document, your recommender should maintain a level of warmth while writing it. They can use your full name at the beginning of the LOR, followed by your first name wherever needed throughout the rest of the draft. This is far better than addressing you as “The candidate”.

How to submit your Letter of Recommendation

Submitting your LOR  depends on the school that you are applying to. Every school has specifics about the manner in which they need a recommendation letter.

Confidentiality is of utmost importance when submitting the LOR. The recommender is either required to directly contact the school admission office or you must send the drafts in tamper-proof sealed envelopes.

Here are the most common ways to submit your LOR:

#1 Online Submission

Your target school may ask you to specify the name and email of your recommender on their online application portal. Once done, your recommender would receive an email with a URL to answer a few questions about you.

The instructions to write your recommendation would be pretty straightforward and easy to follow. There may be some word limit – 200 to 400 words – for each question. There may also be an option to save the draft recommendation and submit later, once your recommender has answered all the questions.

#2 Email Submission

Many schools require the Recommendation Letters to be emailed to the schools’ Admission Office by the recommenders from their official email ids.

Your recommender may need to mention your application number in the email subject. The recommendation letter should be on the letterhead of the recommender – university’s or company’s letterhead – with the signature of the recommender.

Please ensure that your recommender submits your recommendation letter from his official email ID and not from Gmail or other personal emails.

#3 Submission by Post

Some schools ask for the recommendation letter to be sent by post.

You need to courier your recommendation letter in a sealed, signed and stamped (not necessarily in the university/company’s official envelope but on official letterheads) envelope. You may also need to include a cover letter that clearly mentions the course name, application number and all specifics of the recommenders.


Format of Letter of Recommendation

In some cases, your recommender is expected to answer 3-5 questions about you in 100-300 words each.

In other cases, your recommender needs to write an essay highlighting your academic achievements, work ethic, experience, intelligence, and personality. While most of your recommenders have a good idea of what to write and how some may need a little inspiration. Here is a pretty general format that most recommenders turn to while writing a letter of recommendation.

In the first paragraph, your recommender should mention details such as his designation, department, and college/university name. This is usually followed by an account of the capacity in which he or she has associated with you, along with the number of years of your association. If your professor is recommending you, he or she should mention the subjects in which they instructed you. If he or she is your project guide, the name of the project and semesters in which you undertook that project should be mentioned.

In the second paragraph, he or she can mention your project, seminar, workshop or internship along with your contributions and outcomes. He or she should explicitly mention what about you was impressive.

In the third paragraph, your recommender may provide details of some academic activities that you participated in, which the Admission Committee would find useful or interesting to know. Providing examples of any classroom discussions or any questions that you might have asked, which ended up in a rich discussion, benefiting your peers, will make the appraisal of you a lot more relevant. He or she may also write about an instance where you provided an innovative solution, highlighting your creativity and ability to think out-of-the-box.

In the fourth paragraph, your recommender may mention your extra-curricular/co-curricular activities and achievements. The LOR should end with the recommender’s name, designation, department, college/university, city, phone number, and email.

In case your supervisor is writing your LOR, the format above would broadly remain the same with appropriate examples from your workplace.


Sample LOR for MS in Computer Science

[On the letterhead of your professor]

It gives me immense pleasure to recommend Mr Manish Katyan for graduate studies at your esteemed university. Over the last ten years of my teaching experience, I have taught more than three thousand students, coming from varied backgrounds and possessing a wide spectrum of talents, abilities and personality traits. I would place Manish among the top 2 percentile of all the students whom I have taught. Manish has been my student for 4 years between 2012 and 2016. I have taught him various subjects during this period, including Data Structure (Semester 4), Algorithms II (Semester 5), Compiler Design (Semester 6) and Abstract State Machines (Semester 8).

Manish is a sincere and hardworking student with unparalleled self-drive to excel in his chosen field of studies. He has been consistent in his academic performance, retaining his class rank in the top 2 percentile throughout his undergraduate program. His performance in subjects such as Algorithms and Abstract State Machines were exemplary, demonstrating his keen interest in these topics. His ability to ask the right questions and conduct his own research and studies out of the classroom, not only helped facilitate enriching discussions in the class but also reflected his potential for research.

Manish, along with two other students and myself, presented a paper in IEEE organized conference, 2016 International Computer Science and Engineering Conference in Thailand. The paper, titled “Cloud-Based Software Platform for Big Data Analytics in Smart Grids”, was the culmination of a 2-month project that Manish did, during the summer break of 2015. I observed Manish feeling personally responsible for learning, for understanding the science behind the research, and for making and recording careful observations in the laboratory. His originality and ability to make creative decisions helped us complete the paper for the conference in a short span of time.

On a personal level, Manish is a well-rounded person, with a lot of enthusiasm for sports and extra-curricular activities. He has also shown his adeptness at organizational skills, especially in a cross-cultural setting. He is approachable and easy to communicate with.

I concur with his decisions to pursue graduate studies and strongly recommend him for admission at your university.

[name, designation, department, college/university, city, phone and email of the recommender]

Sample LOR for MS in Mechanical Engineering

[On the letterhead of your professor]

It is a pleasure to write a letter of recommendation for Mr Manish Katyan for graduate studies at your esteemed university.  Over the last ten years of my teaching experience, I have taught more than three thousand students, coming from varied backgrounds and possessing a wide variety of talents, abilities and personality traits. Manish stands out in my memory because of his sincerity to learn every detail of the subjects I have taught. Having been my student for two years between 2014-2016, I have taught him Thermodynamics in his 3rd year and Computational Fluid Dynamics in his 4th year of an undergraduate degree.

Based on my observations, I can attest that he is a highly intelligent, sincere and hardworking student with a tremendous drive to reach his goals. He is a keen observer and has the requisite aptitude to take up any difficult assignment in the field of study that he is passionate about. He enjoys the scientific process and has the ability and willingness to look at The Big Picture as well as observe the more minute details. He was among the top 4 mechanical engineering students, selected out of over 300 applicants, to present a paper at a national level competition called “TechKriti 2016”, organized by IIT Kanpur.

On a personal level, Manish is a well-rounded person, with a lot of enthusiasm for sports and extra-curricular activities. He has also shown his adeptness at organizational skills, especially in a cross-cultural setting. He is approachable and easy to communicate with.

I have a strong opinion that he has the right aptitude to excel in Graduate studies and, hence, strongly recommend him for admission at your university.

I wish him grand success in all his future endeavors.

[name, designation, department, college/university, city, phone and email of the recommender]


Sample LOR for MS from Employer

[On the letterhead of your manager]

It is with utmost pleasure and great pride that I am writing this letter of recommendation for Mr. Manish Katyan for admission into the graduate program at your university. As his Manager in AON Hewitt, Chennai, I have known him for two years both professionally and personally and hence I have had ample time to analyze, guide and encourage him with regard to his capabilities.

As per my observations, he completes tasks assigned to him with minimum guidance, making him intellectually independent. At the same time, he has proved on more than a few occasions that he is a team player and has worked cohesively with his colleagues to achieve set targets. This rare combination of skills has won him several awards including the “Customer Hero Award”, in appreciation of his dedication and commitment to client deliverables.

He is a meticulous person and can be entrusted with handling critical situations. As the team leader, he guides his team to test both the positive and negative scenarios to ensure that new changes do not impact the production system. Simultaneously he also works on Test Planning, Configuration and Defect Resolution – tasks that are generally handled by more experienced managers. He shows a lot of interest in defects solving, having not only resolved many in a short span of time but also making sure that they do not recur in the future. He had also initiated the procedure of documenting the changes in a lucid way for future reference, which would be understandable to a non-technical professional too.

Manish is a creative person with a passion for technology. I would like to highlight a prototype that he developed for “Aon Hewitt Leanovation Committee”, which allows remote teams to collaborate in real-time for the testing of the production system, saving the company over $200,000 per year as a result of increased efficiency of global teams. He also demonstrates strong leadership qualities. He proved his caliber as an effective mentor by helping newly hired interns with knowledge transition and getting up to the speed quickly.

I have found him to be a reliable, hardworking and dedicated member of my team. Hence, I strongly recommend his application to your esteemed university, which would help him in improving his knowledge and in realizing his dreams.

[name, designation, department, college/university, city, phone and email of the recommender]