The basics
Study abroad : Applying to University

Top 10 tips to make your reference letter stand out in a university application

An integral part of an application process is the reference letter. Although it is often considered not as important as the A levels or Polytechnic Diploma, references are valuable because they help admission committees to make an opinion about an applicant aside from his or hers academic records.


Different universities have different requirements for the recommendation letters. While some are interested only in referrals from your teachers, others require recommendation letters from current or previous employers. This is especially important for those who wish to take an MBA course.


However, there are universities, like Columbia University, which often ask for more a recommendation from a peer or someone you were engaged in a project aside from your work place. Such recommendations will help these universities evaluate your social skills. 


Whoever, you choose to write your recommendation letter might make or break the possibility of your entry into that dream university. So remember to choose wisely! Hotcourses Singapore knows how important recommendation or reference letters is to ensure a successful application to a university, so we have lined up 10 tips towards getting that great recommendation letter.


1. The person you choose should know you well. The more insight a professor has into you as a student and a person, the better your recommendation will be. 


2. After you have asked your peer, employer or professor to be your referee. Talk to them. Explain your motivation for further studies. If you have a particular university or college in mind, give details to your referrer about your choice and why you think you will be a good candidate for that university. Discuss your choice and ask for advice.


3. Provide your referee with a list of your accomplishments, CV or any other information you think will be important to mention.


4. Be different! US Admission counsellor William Tran told Hotcourses Singapore: ‘The more personal and specific the letter the better. I'll read a bunch of recommendations that will say generic adjectives like "conscientious" or "intelligent". That means nothing to me because every student (I hope) is intelligent, asks questions in class, or is passionate about learning.’


5. Do not list down your achievements! Tran said that letters that include personal, deep stories with unique characteristics that no other student shares would garner the interests of the academic committees.


6. Do not be generic. A letter with common adjectives doesn't help or hurt since most students have them but everything else equal, a student with a bland personality is at a disadvantage.


7. Do not get recommendation letters from “big names” unless you have worked with them and they have first-hand knowledge of your accomplishments. Jay Bhatti in his article  An Inside Look at the Brutal Business School Admission Process comments: ‘We have gotten recommendations from senators, CEOs, and world leaders. Unless the applicant worked directly for the recommender, these letters of reference are usually very vague and un-insightful. It’s better to get a reference from someone who has had direct supervision responsibility over you and can talk about your accomplishments with firsthand knowledge.’


8. Give your referees plenty of time to write your letter. You should also provide them with a large envelope containing all necessary forms, with each form accompanied by a stamped, addressed, business-sized envelope and a list of the schools and deadlines. Each form’s due-date should be made absolutely clear.


9. Thank the referee for taking the time to write your reference letter.


10. Inform the referee about the results of your university application.



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