Writing Letters of Recommendation

Letter of Recommendation Overview

One of the most satisfying evaluation tasks is writing letters of recommendation for your students. When you write letters of recommendation, you are not just evaluating the students’ performance in your class, contribution to your research, or potential for future work; you are also directly helping them achieve their personal and professional goals.

Deciding If You’re Right for the Job

You may be asked to write a letter of recommendation for graduate school, a summer job, or full-time employment. First ask yourself if you know the student well enough to write a helpful recommendation. What are your impressions of that student? Can you be honest in writing a letter? If you have reservations, be straightforward with the student and explain why it would be better if the student requested a letter from another source. If you have a positive opinion about the student, put in the effort to learn as much as you need to about him or her in order to write a compelling letter.

A Few Points to Remember

  • Set up an appointment to meet with the student, asking him or her to bring a resume, a transcript, and any outstanding work from your class. If the student is applying to graduate or professional school, you might ask him or her to bring the personal statement, even in rough draft form. The resume and transcript can provide you with information about the student’s background, in addition to insights into his or her interests and activities outside your class.
  • Use the appointment time to question the student more about his or her specific purpose (e.g., “Why are you going on to graduate school?” or “How does a full-time job as a newspaper reporter relate to your long-term career goals?”)
  • Have the student give you all of the logistics you’ll need to submit the letter, along with the date by which the letter is needed.
  • Try to write the letter as soon after this meeting as possible, while the information is still fresh in your mind. You’ll be surprised how quickly you can forget the important details necessary for a strong letter.
  • Use a standard business letter format on your department stationery or the form provided by the Career Development Center (if the student is opening a placement file).

The Office of Undergraduate Advising and Research (UAR) provides a list of guidelines for writing recommendations for students applying to graduate programs. Letters are generally one typed page and contain the following information:

  • Your relationship to the applicant and length of time you have known him or her.
  • Specific details about the applicant’s skills; past work for you or present job responsibilities; strengths or weaknesses; any unusual aspects that might contribute to or hinder the applicant’s performance; and motivation. Be vivid and concrete, but do not exaggerate or inflate. You want to make the student stand out to the degree he or she deserves, but you also have to preserve your credibility as a recommender.
  • Comments on how the above information relates to the student’s choice of graduate program or job opening. When writing to a prospective employer, translate academic skills into business skills (e.g., a student’s ability to use library facilities for independent research demonstrates curiosity, initiative, and the capacity to work independently). Stress the potential of the individual and why that person is qualified for the job or admission to a graduate program.
  • Your title and telephone number or address where you can be reached.

Keep a copy of the letter for your files. Employers may call to clarify information, the same student may come back to ask for another letter, or it may help you get started when you need to write a letter for another student. Also ask the student to keep you up to date on his or her application status and final employment or school decision. Although the results will not be a clear indication of whether your letter helped, good news will keep up your motivation; the student will also appreciate your interest.

Writing letters of recommendation can be time consuming, but with practice you will soon develop your style and system. Remember that to be where you are, others went to the same trouble for you; this is your chance to reciprocate.