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Letters of Recommendation Questions & Answers

What is the purpose of the Recommendation Letter?
Recommendation letters are letters written by professors who know you, assessing your capacity to meet the requirements of a program to which you are applying. 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.

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
  • Your colleague from the lab with at least PhD
  • Your Professors with whom you have/had frequent interactions
  • The Dean or the Department Head 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.

How many Letters of Recommendation do I need?
Most universities, Including the University of Idaho, will ask you for 3 Recommendation Letters.

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.

Is it possible that the admission committee will contact the recommender?
Yes, it is very possible. The admission committee might send the letter or e-mail or call (whichever information is provided on the recommendation) to inquiry further about a subject in the letter or asking whether this person really gave this recommendation.

Important Notes: 
  • All documents are subject to verification by University of Idaho.
  • All documents received by University of Idaho become the property of University of Idaho and will not be released to anyone or any institution--not even the applicant.
  • University of Idaho evaluates credentials earned through formal academic training only. Applicants should NOT submit documentation of short-term professional development courses or other non-formal, non-academic training with their application; as such documents will not be evaluated or reflected in the University of Idaho evaluation report.
  • If applicable, applicants must submit proof of name change. (Clear, legible photocopy of marriage certificate, for example.)
  • Some academic institutions can take several weeks to provide transcripts so applicants may want to request their transcript at the earliest possible
  • An Application and an Application Fee are valid for a specific degree, major, and semester. Any change in degree, major or semester before enrollment requires a new application.
  • Graduate Admissions will not disclose to an applicant reasons for denial. Graduate Admissions will encourage the student to contact the department directly and inquire how they might improve their application for future admissions. (The Department can choose to disclose or not.)