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  • Matthew Kolodziej

Recommendation Letters for Visas Based on Extraordinary Ability, Outstanding Research, and the NIW

Detailed letters of recommendations are required to obtain certain visas such as the O-1 extraordinary ability visa, the EB-2 national interest waiver, the EB-1A extraordinary ability and EB-1B outstanding research immigrant visa. Attorney Matthew Kolodziej details the components and criteria of a successful letter.

Some of the most advantageous U.S. visas categories are those that require documentation of extraordinary achievements or abilities that benefit the United States. These categories are generally less restricted by quotas or caps, making them available when other visas are not, and do not require the testing of the labor market. They include the O-1 extraordinary ability visa, an uncapped non-immigrant visa that may be extended indefinitely; the EB-2 national interest waiver, which grants lawful permanent residency without an employer-sponsor; and the EB-1A extraordinary ability and EB-1B outstanding researcher immigrant visas, which also grant permanent residence and are usually available when other immigrant visas are not, even for Chinese and Indians who face long waits in other categories.

These visa applications require detailed letters of recommendation from prominent figures that can vouch for the applicant’s achievement in their field. These letters have little to with typical recommendation letters, and must explain the applicant’s achievement emphatically and in detail while keeping the visa category’s requirements in mind. These letters are the main vehicle for telling a compelling and convincing narrative that will explain the applicant’s qualifications, and the selection of letter writers and the letter contents should be a major focus of the preparation the application.

Who Should Write the Letters

Letters explaining extraordinary ability and outstanding research and benefits to the United States must be written by leading figures that have themselves excelled in their fields. Although some may be people who know the applicant well personally, such as teachers, employers, and even personal friends, ideally most should be colleagues who know the applicant primarily due to his or her work and professional prominence. The more removed the letter writer is from the applicant personally the more objective and persuasive the letter will be. The letter should explain how the writer became familiar with the applicant’s publications, met the applicant at an important meeting or exposition, or saw the applicant speak at a conference or perform at an event. The letter writers should ideally be able to speak about the applicant’s work from different theoretical, geographical, or cultural perspectives so that they can testify to the different aspects of his or her achievements and demonstrate the widespread, diverse, and international impact of the work. If the letters all come from the applicant’s circle of friends and from the local area they will not be persuasive. Lastly, the letter writers must be willing to provide highly laudatory and forceful letters praising the applicant’s achievements, since faint praise can be more harmful than helpful.

Contacting Possible Writers

Approaching prominent figures for recommendation letters can be intimidating and it is tempting to limit oneself to colleagues and friends whom the applicant already knows well. However, as noted above, too many letters should not be written by close personal associates. The applicant must get out of his or her comfort zone and reach out to leading figures who can provide a more objective assessment. Often this can be done a conference or event where the applicant plays a prominent role, or by contacting professionals that have cited the applicant’s work or reviewed their performances. Close colleagues or former teachers may also be willing to reach out to their prominent contacts. Considerable effort will have to be dedicated to cultivating the most prominent individuals who will be willing to provide a detailed and enthusiastic reference letter. Offer to work with the writer to help draft and review the letter. Usually if they draft it on their own it will be too vague or muted in its praise. These are not ordinary recommendation letters, the U.S. immigration service is imposing higher standards than ever, and they will need help drafting the letters to show how the applicant meets the requirements.

Number, Length, and Content

Generally speaking at least six letters detailed letters are needed, although fewer may be necessary if they are very specific and persuasive letters from leading figures, and more may be needed if they are shorter or less effective. Most letters should be at least three or four pages, and need to explain the prominence of the letter writer, how the letter writer knows the applicant’s work, and the extraordinary ability, outstanding research, or benefit to the national interest that the applicant’s work represents. The language must be forceful and direct, and emphasize the achievements in specific and measurable ways, to the extent possible. The letter cannot use mild language suggesting the applicant has potential or a great future, the applicant must have achieved prominence already. The letters must also explain original or groundbreaking achievements with specificity, by indicating what the applicant did first or better than others in their field, and how this has resulted in measurable benefits, whether they be economic, theoretical, or artistic, whenever possible.

As noted above, the letters provide an opportunity to explain the significance of accomplishments that are otherwise not evident, such as the importance of a complex original idea, or an achievement that is only known to a few prominent figures in the industry. Ideally achievements should be self-explanatory, such as a publicly recognized award, with objectively measurable criteria, such as monetary success, or a government-approved patent, but when this is not the case, leading industry figures can provide an explanation, but it should be detailed and specific. Simply stating that the applicant is one of the best in their field, a phenomenal artist, or brilliant thinker is not particularly helpful, without explaining how and why and citing examples and measurable standards, with the possible exception of a general statement from an immediately recognizable public figure with unassailable credibility, such as a Nobel Prize or Academy Award winner. Well-meaning, generic compliments on character, saying the applicant is a wonderful person, or clichés about professionalism or competence, do not show extraordinary ability or benefit to the United States, and in fact may suggest mediocrity and hurt the case.

Dedicating the Time and Effort to Telling a Compelling Story

Reference letters are usually the centerpiece of a visa application based on extraordinary ability, outstanding research, or the national interest, and will require the applicant to dedicate a significant amount of time in finding and vetting writers and helping them draft and review the letters. It may take many months. This process requires considerable effort in order to ensure the letters tell a detailed, compelling, and persuasive story about the applicant’s exceptional talent and abilities, and how they will benefit the interests of the United States.


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