International students may underestimate the importance of recommendation letters relative to other parts of the application in the U.S. university and college admissions process. Doing so could be the difference between an acceptance and a rejection from your dream U.S. school.
Avoid these four myths about recommendation letters that commonly trip up prospective international students.
Myth 1: Test scores and grades matter more than recommendation letters. Every part of your U.S. college or university application is as important as every other part. Although recommendation letters, unlike tests and school grades, are qualitative, they often tell both undergraduate and graduate admissions committees a lot more about an applicant than transcripts or standardized test scores can.
Maybe you only managed a B-minus in that Shakespeare class because you chose to challenge yourself with a more difficult literature class, instead of the one everyone else with your major was taking.
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Myth 2: Nobody reads these anyway. Nothing that is asked for in your application packet goes unread. Admissions committees rely heavily on recommendation letters to find out about you as person, beyond your grades and your standardized test scores.
There is so much a number or grade cannot convey. Applicants are people, and recommendation letters reveal that.
Often U.S. admissions committees are more interested, for example, in how you rallied after doing poorly on the first test in a class to doing well enough in subsequent tests to manage a B-plus.
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Myth 3: A generic recommendation letter from a high-profile person is superior to a detailed one from someone less famous. The purpose of recommendation letters is for the members of the admissions committee to get to know you: how you work, learn new things, handle challenges and interact with others at school or work.
Only someone who knows you well and has worked with you and observed you closely can convey that information.
If you know a high-profile person in your field cannot provide an in-depth description of you, then their letter is not as valuable as one from your immediate supervisor. After all, it is information on you that the committee is looking for, not your association with somebody famous.
Myth 4: More recommendation letters are better. Admissions committees at many U.S. graduate programs, which commonly include members of the faculty, can receive hundreds of applications from international students. For each applicant, the committee must evaluate test scores and read application essays, a statement of purpose and recommendation letters.
This takes up lots of time, which they could otherwise spend doing research, preparing lecture notes and grading exams. Many do not read more letters than they have to.
When I assisted the admissions committee at the University of Rhode Island, I saw faculty members read the first three letters of recommendation that they happened to pick up from an applicant's packet and throw out the rest. Sometimes, an applicant's best recommendation letter would get thrown out.
International students can avoid this by following application instructions. If only two letters are asked for, send your strongest two only. More is not always better.
Swati B. Carr, from India, is currently pursuing her doctorate in synthetic biology at Boston University and advises prospective international students. She first came to the U.S. as an international student for her master's in microbial genetics from the University of Rhode Island.