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Questions and Answers for Recommendation Letters

What is the purpose of the Recommendation Letter?
Recommendation letters are letters written by professors who know you, assessing you capacity to meet the requirements of a program you are applying for. They're supposed to help decision-makers to get a better picture of your potential. The most helpful letters come from teachers who have had considerable contact with you, especially in non-classroom setting such as research labs.

What information should be included in the Recommendation Letter?
A letter of recommendation is a detailed discussion, from a faculty member, of the personal qualities, accomplishments, and experiences that make you unique and perfect for the programs to which you've applied. A well written letter of recommendation provides admissions committees with information that isn't found elsewhere in the application. It should be written with the understanding that what makes a student's application packet stand out from the others is not only grades and accomplishments, but the specifics of what the student did and how he or she went about it. Selection committees normally weed out mediocre application packets before focusing on the excellent ones. This means that a brief letter with phrases like "good student" and "hard worker" that aren't substantiated with examples will get tossed aside in favor of the detailed letter that doesn't just tell but shows how qualified the student is.

Most committees look not only for what the student has already done but what he or she has the potential to accomplish. Addressing potential may take a little more time than discussing past deeds, but it may give the student the edge over other applicants.
See General Outline of the Recommendation Letter for more details.

Who should I ask for the Letter of Recommendation?
The best kind of letter is from someone who has been involved with you professionally. This person should know you and your work well and have a high opinion of you.
Good choices include:
* The person who is supervising research on your part, such as your current or former scientific advisor ("nauchnii rukovoditel")
* Your colleague from the lab with at least PhD (= "kandidat nauk")
* Your "seminarist" (and possibly also lecturer) with whom you have/had frequent interactions
* The Dean or the Vice-dean of your department

A letter from an employer can be useful if the job was related to the field to which you are applying, and the letter comments on your accomplishments of specific duties, your aptitude for this type of work and so on. Otherwise, such letters are usually not helpful.

Is it important for my recommender to be well-known person?
It is much to your advantage if your recommender is a well-known person in his field especially if members of the admission committee know his name. Just remember the general letter from the famous person who had little interaction with you and can just say that you are a good student but give no specifics of your joint research or other activities is no good. In this case you'd better off with the recommendation from somebody less famous but well acquainted with your research and personality and ready to write absolutely positively about you.

How many Letters of Recommendation do I need?
Most universities will ask you for 3 Recommendation Letters, rarely 2 or 4. Check with the particular department for details. As a rule you can submit 3 Recommendation Letters to all the programs.

How long should the Letter of Recommendation be?
The optimum length is between 2/3 of a page and one page. If the Recommendation Letter is shorter the admission committee might assume that recommender lacks enthusiasm.

Do I write the letter myself or do I ask the professor to do that?
In Russia most students write their Letters of Recommendation themselves. This is mostly due to fact that the recommenders don't know English well enough to write recommendation and do not know the format in which they are expected to write recommendation (They are used to writing "harakteristiki", which are quite different from Letters of Recommendation). Some recommenders would choose to write in Russian and ask you to translate it in the appropriate form in English. The only exceptions I know when the recommenders chose to write recommendations on their own were when either recommenders were Americans or Europeans or they were Russians closely affiliated with American research institutions.

Some advice on Writing your own Recommendation Letter.

Is it possible that the admission committee will contact the recommender?
It is possible but quite unlikely situation. The only cases I know when the recommenders were contacted is when the recommenders were quite famous people and their recommendations were too good to be true. In this case the admission committee might send the letter or e-mail or call (whichever information is provided on the recommendation) asking whether this person really gave this recommendation. Also, there is no need to provide the e-mail address on the recommendation letter if you don't want to. In my case, my recommenders have been contacted only ones by MIT (after I have been admitted) with the thank you letter for providing useful information.

Learn more about the structure of the Recommendation Letters:

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