Ten Tips for Getting a GREAT Letter of Recommendation

 College-aged student handing over CV and personal statement to a smiling professor in a colorful cartoon office setting, with books, laptop, and certificates in the background.
As with all parts of your application, you need a smart strategy for Letters of Rec

In the competitive world of applications—whether for college, graduate school, or a new job—a strong letter of recommendation can be a deciding factor in your favor. At Gurufi, where we specialize in personal statements, CVs, and letters of recommendation, we have seen firsthand how a well-crafted letter can make a substantial difference. Despite the fact that they play a pivotal role, far too many people simple hand them off to letter-writers and don’t have a thoughtful plan to ensure they get the most of their letters. Here is a 10-part guide to writing a strong letter of recommendation.

recommendation.

 

  1. Ask for a STRONG Letter of Recommendation

When I worked as a professor, I would write a letter for anybody who asked… but not everybody got a strong letter. If you earned a B-, my letter would basically say, “Johnny was in my class, completed the assignments on time, and earned a passing grade.” I told people beforehand, “I’ll write you a letter because it’s part of my job, but you haven’t earned a strong one.” By contrast, a great student got a longer, more specific and detailed, and effective letter.

What’s the lesson here? Don’t just ask if somebody will write you a letter; ask if they’ll write you a STRONG letter. They may say “no,” or otherwise, hedge, which indicates that you need to find somebody else. And, if they were going to write you a strong letter beforehand, it helps to set the expectation that you are seeking a letter that highlights your strengths and capabilities in a compelling way.

 

  1. Provide Your Personal Statement and CV

The best letters of recommendation are details, specific, and align with the core themes of your application. As such, to write a strong and detailed letter, your recommender needs to know about your achievements, goals, and experiences. Providing them with your personal statement and CV offers a comprehensive view of your background. Your personal statement will give them insights into your motivations and aspirations, while your CV will highlight your accomplishments and relevant experiences. This information helps them write a letter that is specific and tailored to the opportunity you are seeking.

When I wrote letters, having these documents was quite helpful in terms of making sure that I included details that complemented their application.

  1. Offer to Meet with Them to Discuss Your Application

A face-to-face or virtual meeting can be incredibly valuable. During this meeting, you can discuss the specific points you would like them to mention in the letter. Share your goals, why you’re applying for this particular program or position, and any specific achievements you want to highlight. This conversation can also help you gauge their willingness and enthusiasm for writing the letter, and it provides an opportunity for them to ask questions to better understand how they can support your application.

  1. Be Judicious About Who You Are Asking

Choosing the right person to write your letter of recommendation is crucial. Ideally, your recommender should know you well and be familiar with your work. This is FAR MORE important than simply choosing a big name. They should be someone who has observed your skills, achievements, and character firsthand and can write extensively about them. A letter from a well-known person may carry weight, but only if they truly know you and can provide a detailed and personal account of your abilities. Academic advisors, professors, direct supervisors, or mentors who have worked closely with you are often the best choices.

 

  1. Provide Them with Plenty of Time

Respect your recommender’s time by asking them well in advance of your application deadline. A rushed letter may lack the detail and thoughtfulness of one that was written with ample time. Asking somebody at the last minute might, frankly, also really annoy them, and “annoyed” isn’t the state of mind you want your writer to have. Aim to ask at least a month before the deadline, and be clear about when you need the letter. This allows your recommender to plan their schedule and gives them the time to craft a well-considered letter.

  1. Follow Up Politely and Be Sure to Thank Them Afterward

Once your recommender has submitted the letter, express your gratitude. A hand-written thank-you note is a courteous way to acknowledge their effort and support. Let them know how much you appreciate their help and keep them informed about the outcome of your application. A sincere thank you not only shows your appreciation but also leaves a positive impression for any future requests you may have.

If the deadline is approaching and you haven’t received confirmation that the letter has been submitted, it is appropriate to follow up politely. A gentle reminder can ensure that your application is completed on time without causing undue stress to your recommender.

 

Lastly, if you earn admission or get the job, be sure to forward that information to your letter-writer and thank them for it again.

 

  1. Provide Context and Details

If there are specific experiences or projects you want your recommender to mention, provide them with details. For example, if you worked on a significant project under their supervision, remind them of the specifics and the impact of your work. This helps them include concrete examples that can strengthen your letter.

I always appreciated it when students said, “please emphasize my work on X, Y, or Z…” as it gave me clarity about what to include.

 

  1. Stay Organized

Keep track of who you asked, when you asked, and the deadlines for each letter. This organization ensures you don’t miss any important dates and allows you to follow up as needed without appearing disorganized or forgetful.

 

  1. Offer to Write a Draft

In some cases, your recommender might appreciate a draft letter that they can edit and personalize. This can save them time and ensure that the key points you want to be included are covered. However, this should be offered tactfully and only if you believe it will be helpful.

Letter writing is highly individualized, and different people will ask you for different things. Remember that you’re the one asking for a favor, so do whatever you can -within ethical boundaries- to help them help you.

 

  1. Understand the Format and Requirements

Different institutions may have specific requirements for letters of recommendation. Make sure your recommender is aware of these requirements, whether it’s a particular format, length, or topics that need to be covered. Providing this information upfront can help them write a letter that meets all necessary criteria.

This is especially important if letters have to be uploaded to particular portals. Make sure that you provide clear instructions and perhaps even offer to set it up for them if they haven’t already.

 

Conclusion

Securing a strong letter of recommendation requires careful planning, clear communication, and consideration for your recommender’s time and effort. By following these steps, you can ensure that your letters of recommendation are compelling, detailed, and tailored to support your application. At Gurufi, we’re here to help you through every step of the process, ensuring that your application stands out for all the right reasons. Good luck!

For more help with your personal statement, check us out at Gurufi.com. Our personal statement editors and consultants have decades of experience helping clients get into top Masters and Ph.D. programs in STEM, humanities, fine arts, and social sciences. Our specialty is helping you craft compelling personal statements that move the needle in your admissions process! For questions, shoot us an email at service@gurufi.com. Check us out on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.

The Role of Authenticity In Personal Statements

Colorful cartoon of a young Caucasian male and an Asian female MBA applicants seated at a cafe table, surrounded by open laptops and scattered papers. They are deep in conversation, brainstorming about their personal statements, with other cafe patrons visible in the background. The setting is lively and focused, ideal for depicting the strategic planning of MBA applications.
MBA AdComs consider a host of factors, but authenticity always rings true

Striking a Balance Between Authenticity and Cynicism

         In my eighteen years of helping people earn admission into their dream schools, two kinds of applicants are quite common. The first type sees their application as merely a means to an end. They want to know what the admissions committee wants, and they’ll then try to shoehorn their life into that mold. The second type treasures pure authenticity, and insists on featuring the most important moments of their lives in their personal statements, even if they’re not quite relevant.

         Neither of these approaches are quite right; the first is too cynical and the second focuses so much on “authenticity” that it forgets its purpose. The correct path is one that splits the difference, and this is what makes crafting a perfect personal statement so perplexing and difficult. On one hand, there’s a compelling need to present oneself in a way that resonates with the Admissions Committees (AdComs). On the other, there’s the inherent desire to remain authentic to one’s true self. With that in mind, how can you blend sincerity with strategic insight to unlock the gates to top-tier business schools?

 

Every Kind of Writing Has a Purpose

Let’s start with a fundamental truth: every kind of writing serves a specific purpose. The personal statement is one of the strangest kinds of writing in that it’s a blend of memoir, CV, and interview. For MBA application essays, the purpose is unequivocally to earn admission—not to bare your soul as you might on a dating app. Understanding this is pivotal. Your personal statement must be meticulously tailored to reflect the qualities, accomplishments, and experiences that AdComs value in prospective students… but not do so in a way that feels obviously manufactured. It’s about highlighting aspects of your life that align with the school’s ethos and expectations.

However, this does not mean fabricating stories or presenting an exaggerated version of yourself. The art lies in selecting genuine experiences from your life that best demonstrate these values. This approach ensures that your essay remains grounded in reality while strategically showcasing your compatibility with the school’s culture and objectives.

Okay… so HOW?

 

The Utility of Authenticity

Let’s begin by talking about authenticity within the context of a personal statement. Why is it crucial, especially when you’re consciously tailoring your essay? In short, authentic essays are better essays. Authenticity brings a certain richness to your writing. It makes your stories believable and relatable. An authentic essay does not feel forced; it flows naturally and engages the reader by weaving narratives that are both compelling and true to who you are.

This might sound like a contradiction—being authentic while also being strategic. However, think of authenticity in this context as being purpose-driven. You’re not just recounting your experiences; you’re strategically selecting stories that authentically illustrate your values and attributes that align with the school’s profile.

 

Two Keys to Balancing Authenticity and Strategy

 

  1. Align Your Stories with Core Values

Begin by identifying 3-5 core values or attributes that your target school holds in high esteem. These can be gleaned from the school’s website, promotional materials, and by engaging with alumni and current students. Note the words and ideas that they repeat often or that they lead with. Once you have this list of values, brainstorm real-life stories from your own experiences that reflect these qualities.

For instance, if leadership is a recurrent theme in the school’s ethos, reflect on instances where you demonstrated leadership. Perhaps you led a project at work that turned around an underperforming department, or maybe you spearheaded a volunteer initiative that made a significant impact. These stories are effective not just because they show you possess desirable traits, but because they are rooted in your real experiences, lending credibility and authenticity to your narrative.

 

  1. Don’t Overestimate the AdComs

A common mistake applicants make is overestimating the AdComs. It’s easy to imagine them as omniscient judges capable of seeing through any embellishment or strategic positioning in your essay. While it’s true that AdComs are adept at evaluating applications, they are not infallible. They are looking for well-crafted essays that are honest, forward-looking (that connect your intended past in a realistic way with what you’ve done and hope to learn in their school), and reflective of the candidate’s true potential and fit with the school.

As long as your essay is grounded in real stories that illustrate your claims, you shouldn’t worry too much about AdComs seeing through your strategy. The key is to be honest and thoughtful in your writing, ensuring that it is both reflective of your genuine self and strategically aligned with the school’s values.

 

Embrace Your Multifaceted Self

Remember: truthfulness is non-negotiable. When I tell you to be strategic, I AM NOT encouraging you to be in any way dishonest. An excellent essay is an ethical essay, and even if you don’t believe in ethics (which… wow, shame on you!) understand that there are many negative consequences to dishonesty, not least that your essay will often feel phony.

However, recognizing that every person embodies multiple facets of themselves is crucial. In your MBA application essay, you are simply choosing to highlight those aspects of your personality and experience that resonate most powerfully with the AdComs. This doesn’t mean you are being insincere; rather, you are showcasing the parts of your identity that best align with the academic and cultural milieu of the school you aspire to join.

Crafting an MBA application essay is a balancing act of authenticity, cynicism, and strategy. By aunderstanding the purpose of your writing, staying true to your stories, and strategically aligning them with the values of your target program, you can create a compelling narrative that is both sincere and persuasive. Remember, the goal is not just to tell a story, but to tell your story in a way that aligns with the expectations and values of the AdComs, opening the door to the next big step in your career and personal development.

For more help with your personal statement, check us out at Gurufi.com. Our personal statement editors and consultants have decades of experience helping clients get into top Masters and Ph.D. programs in STEM, humanities, fine arts, and social sciences. Our specialty is helping you craft compelling personal statements that move the needle in your admissions process! For questions, shoot us an email at service@gurufi.com. Check us out on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.