19 June 2022 04:05:56 IST

Vivek Bhandari is the Founder and CEO of edtech company Scholarly. An IIT Delhi and IIM Calcutta alumnus, Vivek is passionate about higher education. A former banker and mortgage expert, he mentors students and professionals for admissions to the Ivy Leagues and top universities globally. Over a two-decade career, Vivek has led large global organisations providing banking products, IT-enabled services, technology services, loan servicing, property management, and other real estate services. He has extensive experience of working in India, the US, and Europe, and a strong understanding of these markets. Based in Luxembourg, Vivek regularly travels to North America and India for work.

How to secure strong letters of recommendation

Request the final letter of recommendation at least two months before the submission deadline | Photo Credit: Getty Images

A recommendation from Prof Seth* will get you admitted to Columbia University. After all, he did his PhD from Columbia.” I vividly remember the late-night conversation over parathas and chai during my third year at IIT Delhi. For my classmates planning to go abroad for MS, a strong letter of recommendation from an eminent professor meant everything. There was intense strategising on which elective courses they would pick, which professor they’d learn under, and what other activities they would participate in to impress their professors and to get that elusive recommendation letter. 

Over the years, I have had a chance to write recommendation letters for my colleagues and teammates. A well-written recommendation letter can give you a competitive edge while applying to different, reputed colleges.  

Here are some of the best practices to obtain the perfect recommendation letter from your preferred mentors.  

Choose the right mentor 

Your mentor needs to be someone you respect and is related to your field of interest. If you are a high school student aspiring to study engineering, this may be your Physics (Chemistry or Computer Science) teacher. If you are already in college, this may be a professor from your department or from a field that you want to pursue in graduate studies. If you are a working professional, this may be your immediate supervisor or your department head.  

Try to find a mentor who inspires you and you would like to emulate what they have done. 

Seek ways to interact  

After identifying a mentor, you now need to find the right opportunities to work with them and demonstrate your skills and work ethic. For high school students, this may mean achieving strong scores in that subject, working on projects and competitions, and volunteering to collaborate.  

Similarly, college students need to do exceedingly well in the subject their mentor is teaching to get noticed. It requires you to have a genuine interest in the subject, to be abreast with the current happenings, and discuss them in detail. Working professionals need to go the extra mile and generate customer delight. In addition to hard work and results, they also need to demonstrate their curiosity and willingness to learn.  

In short, you need to demonstrate your performance and work ethic and gain your mentor’s respect.  

Share your aspirations  

You should feel comfortable sharing your plans and aspirations with your mentor. They have been in your shoes and interact with many other students like you. They will not judge you for wanting to do better and expecting a letter of recommendation. A good mentor understands that you want to improve and wants to help you in your journey.  

This is the whole point of choosing someone that inspires you and you want to emulate. Once you have demonstrated your commitment and results, you will find that your mentor can be an excellent source of ideas. Keep your mentor apprised of your progress and request feedback on what other things you can do to develop holistically.  

Detailed overview  

While your mentors may want to support you in your admission journey, it is up to you to provide them with the relevant information about your achievements and future plans. Please keep in mind that they are busy people and be respectful of their time. Additionally, they may receive similar requests from several others and may not remember details about each student.   

While requesting a letter of recommendation, you should inquire if you can provide relevant information. They can then review what you have provided, add their observations, and provide a personalised recommendation letter. If you have already prepared a Statement of Purpose (SOP), it may cover the relevant points you want to be addressed. Provide them with a copy of your SOP for them to in turn provide a detailed letter of recommendation. 

Request the final letter of recommendation at least two months before the submission deadline. You may not know about their schedule and plans. Give them sufficient time to write a letter that explains their view about you as a student and a person.   

It is surprising how many students approach their mentors a couple of weeks before the submission deadline and with no background information or SOP. Don’t make this mistake. Commitment and honesty lead to long-term mentor-mentee relationships which add value to both parties.  

All the best for your admission journey to your dream university.  

(Note from the writer: *Prof Kiran Seth is an Indian academician and a Professor Emeritus in the Mechanical Engineering Department at IIT Delhi. He is also the founder of Spic Macay, a non-profit organisation that promotes Indian classical music and classical dance. Thousands of former students fondly regard him as an exceptional mentor. )