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Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Effective Letter Writing


An open letter




PRINCIPALS, teachers and counsellors, in your line of work, you are often requested to give Letters of Recommendation for your students. My sympathies are entirely with you - you are already overburdened with work, have loads of corrections to do, extra-curricular activities to supervise, bureaucratic processes to deal with at your institution, and above all, your own curriculum to complete. 


   Writing these letters is, perhaps, the least of your concerns. And more often than not, students ask you at the last minute, and then annoyingly begin to badger you for them within a day or two. A more thankless task in the course of your work cannot be imagined - as I said earlier, my sympathies are entirely with you. 


  Another way to look at this, perhaps, is that students are actually paying you an enormous compliment by requesting you to give them these Letters of Recommendation. They are conveying to you that they believe you know them well, and have sound knowledge of their intelligence, work capacity, integrity and other interests. Small comfort, but there you are. 

Here are a few tips to assist you: 


If you are regularly requested to give Letters of Recommendation (LoRs), put up clear guidelines in your office for students 


   Specify the amount of time you require and add a few extra days as a margin of safety. Students should be notified to give extra copies of the blank LoRs with their names and data filled in.You may want to keep your own copy for reference, and in case of an error, valuable time could be wasted in arranging for extra copies. Besides, you shouldn't have to make copies yourself — that is the student's job 


   You deal with hundreds of students within the span of a few years --- you cannot be expected to remember the details about each and every student you teach. Ask the student to give you copies of their board exam results, and a short note on prizes, awards, participation in extra curricular activities, voluntary work, and leadership positions held 


   Ask students to provide details about the universities and colleges where the LoRs are going. This achieves two objectives — you will be able to give more effective letters, and it will ensure that students do their homework and familiarise themselves with their target institutions 


   If the student has taken standardised tests such as the SATs, TOEFL or IELTS, GRE, GMAT or any others, ask them to provide copies of the same.You will have validated proof of their academic potential 


  Students are usually asked to write an application essay (also known as a Statement of Purpose, or SOP). Ask the student to give you a copy of his/her SOP if they have already written one --- it gives you valuable pointers about the future plans of the student, which you can comment upon in your LoR 


Now for the actual letter. It is important to differentiate LoRs from routine 'character certificates' that are issued by schools to all their students. 


   North American universities evaluate students on several parameters --- the most common being academic strength as indicated by their scholastic achievements in class exams, class rank and standardised tests. They also look for leadership qualities, abilities outside the classroom such as sports and athletics, debating, theatre, quizzing etc, extra curricular involvement, voluntary and community work, and special interests and abilities. 


   It is important to remember that universities and colleges abroad are not completely familiar with the Indian education system. One common misnomer is the name 'public school'.What those abroad do not know is that in India, public schools are, in fact, very 'exclusive' schools, which admit students only after rigorous testing. 


   For Canada and the US, public schools are literally that — public schools which charge no tuition fee, and are open to all residents within that particular school district. It is therefore comparatively easy for a bright student to rank in the top 5, 10 or 20 th percentile of his/her class in Canada and the US. It is crucial to include information about how students have already been through several filters before getting where they are. 


   Further, the Indian education system uses a formal, measured, rigid system of communication, whereas 
the Western world uses a relaxed, informal, spontaneous, but more analytical method of communication. It would be best to adapt to the international norms in this respect. Be generous in your estimation of your students' potential, but don't gush --- that would be going to the other extreme. 


It is also important to emphasise that your own school sets standards that are considerably higher than the board exams (which most private schools in India do), and your reasons for doing so. The class exam results may therefore not be a true reflection of the final results the student will receive in the boards. Most foreign universities make admissions decisions in January-February; well before the board results are available. 




Sunil Sharma


Dil Se Desi Group


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