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Writing letters of recommendation

It’s getting to be that time of year again: letter-writing season.

Like birds returning for the spring, students will begin appearing in your doorway—or their emails will begin popping up in your inbox—asking if you’d write a letter for their application to law school or medical school or graduate school or an internship or a job or who knows what else.

Writing letters of recommendation for students (and colleagues) is time-consuming—so much so that you may sometimes feel you’ve taken on a second job—but there are strategies that can make the letters both more effective and easier to produce.  The keys? Be honest, be specific, and be careful.

Before you say “Yes”

Be honest with the student making the request.

  • Do you know this person well enough to write a convincing letter? If not, say so. The student may or may not still want you to write the letter, but at least she’ll know what to expect from you.
  • Do you feel comfortable recommending this person for this particular scholarship, graduate program, or job? Again, be honest. If you don’t think this student is cut out for a high-profile internship, she deserves to know. She may disagree with you—and perhaps rightly so—but have the conversation.
  • Do you have time to write the letter? If not, better to say no than keep the student in limbo.

After you say “Yes”

Ask the student for the details—how the letter is to be addressed and mailed, the deadline for submission, etc.

Ask what she’d like you to discuss. You’ll still need to put your personal impressions into the letter, but knowing what the student thinks is important can give you direction.

Ask for any additional information that will make writing the letter easier: a copy of her personal statement, her résumé, or perhaps a paper she wrote for you, especially if it’s been several semesters since she took your course.

Writing the letter

Stick to a standard format, unless the request stipulates otherwise. Typically, letters of recommendation are only a page or two long.

  • The first paragraph explains why you’re writing. (“I’m writing at the request of student X to recommend you admit her to your graduate program . . . .”) Clarify how you know the student and how long you’ve known her.
  • The next paragraphs offer specific reasons why this student should be awarded this position or accolade. (“What sets this student apart is her intellectual curiosity. She routinely seeks out additional reading . . . .”)
  • The final paragraph reiterates your recommendation. (“I urge you to give this student a place in your program.”) If you’re comfortable doing so, invite the recipient to contact you for more information and provide your contact details.

Support generalizations  with detailed examples. If you describe your student as hardworking, give an example of how she went beyond expectations on a project or revised a paper several times. If you say a student is a team player, talk about the active role she took in a group project.

Quantify things when possible. Instead of “She’s very bright,” say, “She’s one of the top five students I’ve worked with in 10 years of teaching.”

Tailor your comments to the situation. A prospective employer might care about the student’s punctuality and work habits, but a law school would probably care more about the student’s intellectual range and communication skills.

Remember that the letter reflects not only on the student, but also on you and your department. Don’t say anything you can’t substantiate. It’s certainly expected that you’ll praise your students, but reserve your highest accolades for the best of them. Over-the-top praise, particularly without supporting evidence, can backfire.

Proofread. Better yet, ask a colleague to proofread: a fresh pair of eyes can find errors you’ll never see in your own work.

Final Caveats

There are some increasingly complex legal issues surrounding writing letters of recommendation. For a detailed discussion, see this page from the National Association of Colleges and Employers.

In general, though, instructors should

–avoid any mention of a student’s race, religion, ethnicity, disability, citizenship, gender, marital status, or sexual orientation.

–get the student’s permission (preferably in writing) before including any FERPA-protected information, such as the student’s grades.  (The recipient will likely have the student’s transcript anyway.)

Further Reading

Information on writing letters for highly competitive scholarships:

Discussion of writing letters for academic positions from the perspective of  Associate Professor Maura Ives from the Department of English at Texas A & M:

Discussion and sample letters from the Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning, Harvard University:

University of California at Berkeley page on writing letters for different kinds of graduate programs:

National Association of Colleges and Employers sample faculty letter of recommendation:




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