Your best chance to be admitted to great labs is to be first noticed by professors before application deadlines (this is a topic I discuss elsewhere). By the time a professor looks at your letters of recommendation (LORs), they have likely already taken notice of you (through your CV/resume, grades, word of mouth, etc.) The door has been partly opened for you. Now you need to get in. Strong LORs are absolute keys to getting you into grad school and the lab of your dreams!
As a professor, I spend more time reading LORs than personal statements by applicants. I wish to lean on the experiences and impressions of others to become more convinced in my decision-making to admit you to my lab. I, and countless other professors, have experiences with applicants that look amazing on paper, but turn out to have significant weaknesses (the opposite is also true!) Professors want to (feel they) know you a lot before they admit you. They wish to know how authentic you are, how you will fit in their lab’s culture, how likely you are to shine and to do amazing work.
Let me start by saying that very few people actually write bad (i.e. explicitly negative) letters for others (I knew a professor that did; and he was the talk of town!) If you ask someone that is not fond of you to write you a letter, and they sadly agree, the outcome is at best a ‘good’ letter. At best. And that’s not good at all! A ‘good’ letter is a bad letter (except by German professors!). Stay with me.
In the outstanding management book, “Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap... and Others Don't” by Jim Collins, he makes an important assertion that “Good is the enemy of great.” Now, he means this about the way we do things. It’s easier to counter ‘bad’ than to counter ‘good’ because the latter is positive. “We don't have great schools, principally because we have good schools. We don't have great government, principally because we have good government. Few people attain great lives, in large part because it is just so easy to settle for a good life.” You should surely take note of this for your studies and work and life in general, and I constantly talk about this with my students. But this is also true for LORs. Go after mentors and professors and supervisors that you think would write GREAT letters for you. There should be at least 1-2 such persons.
Here’s something everybody knows but doesn’t talk about. Many LORs are written by the students themselves! Be ready to write your own letters! Professors are busy people. When I am asked to write a LOR, if I’m fond of the individual, I accept. I admit that very frequently I then ask that person to provide me with a first strong draft letter. There’s 3 benefits to this. One is what I already told you. We professors are very busy, and are asked all the time to write letters. Secondly, and importantly, you have certain specific pieces of information (and perspectives on yourself) that I may not readily think of, but I will remember and confirm if you write it for me. Thirdly, I can allocate more of my energy to write about any additional angles and perspectives. Don’t be shy. Write a very strong letter for yourself. It’s also a great opportunity for you to self-reflect (authenticity only happens when you do that; and that is stronger than anything else). Put aside your personal and cultural reservations (“Will the professor think I’m too fond of myself?”) In all the years of asking students to help me by drafting their letters, I only recall one case where someone wrote something that was way too strong (and guess what, I don’t even remember who that person is; I changed the tone; and moved on). So don’t worry. Don’t be shy. If you are from a culture where bashfulness is an etiquette, well, deal with it! You can tell your professor when you provide him/her with your draft that you put aside such reservations, and hope that he/she is OK with that.
Having said all of that, I often have a sense as to whether an applicant wrote the entire letter (and the professor just did superficial edits and signed), or whether the professor actually made important contributions to the letter. It’s MUCH better for you to be in the latter group. So even if you draft your letter, make sure you find a way for you to ask your professor to add strong content and perspectives to the letter.
As for the actual content of LORs, I personally pay a lot of attention to the last paragraph, where concluding remarks are being made. Here’s another strange thing I’ll admit: when I’m inundated with applications, that last paragraph might be the only paragraph I read fully to narrow down my initial list of applicants, while skimming through the other paragraphs! For the few applicants that I’m very interested in, then I might more carefully read the other parts.
In any case, the idea is that your authentic self should be best conveyed to me, so if the letter contains specific examples and anecdotes, these help me connect better with you. Such examples would be things like specific research you conducted, instances of write-ups/publications that you had and how you contributed to them, details of how you participate in the lab, how you get along with others, how you do what you do, how good you are as a research and person, your personality, your character.
So make sure you give yourself ample time to approach the right people to ask for letters; to push to find a time (even if 5 minutes) to tell them how important this letter is to you, how important it is for you to have a STRONG letter from them that conveys who you are. Don’t be shy. Reflect. Communicate. My best wishes to you in your endeavors.
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