I saw a question asking how to write recommendation letters and I wonder why this is so important? Why are recommendation letters crucial for scholarship applications for studying in Masters or research ? They should be more interested in the student willing to work hard and be loyal to the studies, not cheat, or plagarise or use unfair means to win. What will a recommendation do instead?


2 Answers 2


Your question seems to present the use of letters of recommendation as being orthogonal to the goals of selecting hard-working and dedicated students. This is simply a false assumption.

The purpose of letters of recommendation is to ensure the person making the selections that they are choosing qualified candidates who will satisfy the needs of the program. Anybody can claim to be hard-working, but how do you know this is actually the case? If you have several people, well-versed in the needs of research or advanced study in a given topic, telling you that candidate X has all the prerequisites and character traits needed to ensure success, you're a lot more likely to believe it than just to take someone's word about himself or herself.

  • Agreed. Anyone can vouch for himself. Having someone else vouch for you also entails that they are willing to put not only his support, but his reputation and their clout behind you.
    – Compass
    Commented Sep 22, 2014 at 19:40
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    What if the "several people" who tell you about candidate X never wrote the letter and the candidate wrote letters praising himself to get admission. Isn't that cheating and why would you believe this person who cheated more than a person claiming they are honest?
    – 999
    Commented Sep 23, 2014 at 20:48
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    @999: Can recommendation letters be faked? Yes. Does this mean that I don't want to see any letters at all, because some fraction might be fraudulent? Absolutely not. (For what it's worth, most such self-written letters are frankly not very good!)
    – aeismail
    Commented Sep 23, 2014 at 21:54

"They should be [more] interested in the student willing to work hard and be loyal to the studies, not cheat, or plagiarize or use unfair means to win."

True enough. But letters of recommendation are the best way to "find out."

Grades and test scores certainly count, but they do not "testify" to a student's ethics or his/her ability to "game" the system. Only human beings know what was really behind someone's record. The way to get that kind of information is to have students submit letters of recommendation.

What people don't say is often has important as what people say. In a litigious American society, not everyone will point out someone's negatives. But a letter to the effect of "s/he did okay in my class as far as I remember" is not exactly a ringing endorsement but rather a red flag, especially if that person has a high grade.

The classic example of "damning with faint praise" was cited by my father, a retired professor. "If you knew him as well as we do, you would appreciate him as much."

  • you are partly correct about finding out from other aquaintances but what about situations when the applicant cheats : academia.stackexchange.com/questions/1452/… ? The system is so faulty that it allows fake people entry by denying others the opportunity because they may not have gone to a big brand school and didnt know many famous proffesors to vouch for them.
    – 999
    Commented Sep 23, 2014 at 20:51
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    "Because they may not have gone to a big brand school and didnt know many famous proffesors to vouch for them.": We don't need "famous professors" or "big-name schools." The most useful letters I've ever read have come from people I've never even heard of.
    – aeismail
    Commented Sep 29, 2014 at 23:13

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