September 24, 2019
Letters of recommendation are an important part of your application. We’ve compiled some tips and advice on how best to approach these letters to help you better prepare for this part of the process.
First, let’s start with the basics.
- We require two letters of recommendation.
- You may submit up to three.
- We strongly recommend that at least one letter of recommendation come from an academic source.
Sound good? Let’s move to two of our biggest “DON’Ts:”
- DON’T assume more equals better. While we accept three letters, the third is truly optional. From the perspective of the Admissions Committee, quality goes farther than quantity. Carefully select two recommenders who know you well and will speak to your abilities and accomplishments. If you are still thinking of including a third letter, consider whether it will add a new and different perspective.
- DON’T select a recommender solely based on their title. We like to emphasize “substance over signature.” The name at the bottom of the page means much less than the content of the letter. The Admissions Committee is interested in learning more about who you are, how you’ve spent your time, and what unique contributions you might bring to HLS. This information is most clearly communicated by someone with whom you’ve been working closely, rather than someone who may have a more “impressive” title, but with whom you’ve had less direct contact. Select a recommender who knows you well and can paint the most illustrative picture of the strengths of your candidacy. It is quite obvious to us when a recommender knows a student only though the resume they passed along to them, and they are often not shy about telling us explicitly if they don’t know the candidate well.
Now that you know what NOT to do, here are our recommendations for your recommendations:
- Nurture your relationships with prospective recommenders. If you’re a college student, make a point to get to know your professors outside of class, through office hours or other informal conversations. It’s helpful to keep in touch with professors and supervisors even after you’ve graduated or moved on to other professional opportunities. This can help them write more meaningful letters.
- Start early. Respect your recommendation writer’s time by checking in with them early in the application process. Inquire if they have the time and capacity to provide a letter. Make sure you share any relevant deadlines with them, and give them plenty of time to submit the reference.
- Pick recommenders who know you well and who are excited to help. Enthusiasm goes a long way towards making a letter compelling!
Filed in: Inside the Black Box