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4. What stands out the most in letters of recommendation? What do admissions officials truly look for?
Vivid examples can make or break a recommendation. Objectivity is also important. Being over-the-top does little to establish credibility of the letter writer. Let the examples speak for themselves. Focus on facts about the candidate and substantiate any points you wish to stress by recounting a real example that illustrates your point. The examples will speak for themselves. Admissions board members are looking for [a] balanced perspective. They want honesty backed with facts/data that can confirm whatever point you have communicated about a candidate. They also appreciate brevity. Get to the point quickly and answer the question being asked!
5. How much do letters of recommendation tend to matter when compared to other aspects of the application?
There isn't a particular percentage that I would attribute to the recommendation letters since candidates are evaluated holistically. However, letters of recommendation matter a great deal in the evaluation process. They are the third party 'evidence' that can tip the scale in favor or against the candidate. A strong application complemented with very strong recommendations can elevate a candidate to the 'likely to be admitted' stack. On the other hand, a strong application with mixed recommendation letters will raise flags that will draw greater scrutiny during an interview (if the candidate is lucky enough to still be interviewed) and if the concerns/issues raised in the recommendations aren't assuaged in the interview, the likely outcome would be a denial, or at best, a wait list. So without a doubt, recommendation letters are quite important in the overall application process.
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