Someone writes a letter of recommendation

Letter of Recommendation

When students apply to German universities, a letter of recommendation will almost always be part of the process. Supplied by third parties who know the applicant well, these letters are invaluable tools for admissions departments. But what do they include, and how can students select the right recommender? This blog looks at what these letters feature, and should help you make the best impression when completing your German university application.

General Information

What is a letter of recommendation and why do you need it?

German universities want to be sure that applicants have more than just paper qualifications. They need to know that students have character and personality, which is why many institutions will require what is known as a "letter of recommendation".

This is a document from an individual with connections to the applicant, who can testify that students have reached the required level, or have other skills that suit the course they are applying for. Teachers and employers are common examples.

What do you focus on in a letter of recommendation?

The content of these documents will often revolve around a letter of recommendation questionnaire. This tends to include questions about a student's level of academic attainment, their attendance record, aspects of their discipline and behavioral issues.

However, good letters go beyond this. They communicate how enthusiastic students are, and how much they can bring to German universities.

Do I write the letter myself or do I ask the recommender to do that?

Students don't write letters of recommendation themselves. The whole point is to offer an independent viewpoint which confirms the information provided by students. Instead, you will need to make a polite request to the recommender of your choice.

Quality instead of Quantity

Sometimes, students choose a couple of people. That's fine, but make sure the individuals are relevant to the course you are applying for.

What information should be included?

The actual content of a letter of recommendation will vary depending on what course you apply for, and who you ask. After all, respondents can only write about what they know, and they won't know everything about you. Common questions could include:

  • Does the applicant have the qualifications required to study at university?
  • What was the student's attitude towards their studies, and did they show a passion for the subject they wish to study?
  • Did you notice a development in the student's abilities and attitude over time?
  • How well did the applicant work during team-based exercises?
  • Does the student respond well to constructive criticism?
  • What specific achievements did the student attain, and did they overcome any notable challenges in achieving them?

As you can probably see, the emphasis isn't on single word answers. When thinking about what to emphasize in a letter of recommendation, more general factors come into play.

Writers need to communicate aspects of your personality and abilities - what makes you unique and a valuable addition to their student body. Without seeming to exaggerate, the writer has to create an image of who you are, and one that sets you apart from the crowd.

That's not an easy task, so choose the writer wisely. Their words can make a big difference to your chances of success.

Ask for example questions

Ask your university for example questions, and provide a recommendation letter information sheet to your chosen recommender(s). That way, they can structure their letter without missing any key information.

How to get a strong recommendation letter

How can you ensure that the writer of your recommendation letter does the job well and honestly? This isn't an easy task, and it pays to think hard about who you ask.

Who should I ask for the letter of recommendation?

Teachers are a very popular option when asking for a recommender, and with good reason. Your teachers will know you well, having seen you at school day-in, day-out. They will have a good knowledge of your skills and aptitude for specific courses. And their written English should be strong as well.

They aren't the only option, though. If you have worked in a sector related to your course, bosses or colleagues could be preferable. This is often true for Masters or PhD applicants who want to develop their professional skills in Germany.

Is it important to be well-known by the recommender?

When you choose a recommender, it's usually advisable to pick someone who knows you very well indeed.

Put yourself in the place of the admissions team at your German university. They want an in-depth profile of who you are, and how your skills measure up against your application form. Only someone who knows you well can provide that kind of information.

Is it possible that the admission committee will contact the recommender?

Universities may well contact your recommender to check that the information they have provided is accurate, and to clear up any confusing issues. But they won't generally carry out long interviews or demand a lot of information.

Admissions staff usually trust recommenders to provide an honest appraisal, but it's still very important for the text to remain as truthful as possible. Any discrepancies between your recommender's words and your personal testimony could raise questions about your application in general.

When making a request to act as a recommender, provide information about your course and what you hope to achieve. And when the task has been completed, why not purchase a gift for your teacher or colleague?