Letters of Recommendation
in your career, you may be surprised the first time a student asks you
to write a letter of recommendation (it seems just yesterday that you
were asking for letters). Be assured, however, that your academic career
has prepared you for this task. A letter of recommendation is basically
a short essay, complete with thesis and supporting evidence; you can prepare
and write it much as you would construct any paper in which you persuade
your reader toward a stated position. Here are some tips:
the assignment. Ask the student for detailed information about the desired
position or academic program, as well as for a stamped, addressed envelope.
If possible, read the application form to learn exactly how the request
for recommendations is worded and when it is due. Some program guidelines
request information about the applicant's character; others emphasize
the applicant's academic performance. If you are unfamiliar with the
letter format, ask colleagues for anonymous copies of their letters
or stop by the TRC for a sample or for additional "how-to"
guides. Follow the recommended length; if none, normally limit yourself
to no more than one or one-and-a-half single-spaced pages.
the "topic" thoroughly by asking the student for all relevant
academic records, copies of successful papers, and lists of honors,
internships, volunteer work, extra-curricular activities, and career
goals. You want to hear anything that will help you know the student
or remind you about your previous relationship. Interview any student
you don't know well, paying special attention to social skills and personality.
Be sure to ask for suggestions about what to include in the letter;
the answer will give you more insights and may focus the letter for
you. If necessary, ask colleagues about their experiences with the student.
a thesis and support it with specific examples: for example, "Sharon's
thirst for knowledge will make her a coveted prospective graduate student
for your department. I once found her working in the lab after midnight;
she said that she'd been about to fall asleep when she'd come up with
a hypothesis she just had to test."
objective data. Not all 3.8 GPAs are equivalent. Some students make
these grades in honors' courses, others by stacking their schedules
with easier courses. Comment on the student's academic career.
- Be precise
in your interpretation: "Phil was fifth in a class of 103"
tells the recipient much more than, "Phil is an excellent student."
- Go beyond
the objective data. Letter recipients probably already have objective
measures of the student's capabilities and look to you for the subjective,
anecdotal information not reflected in a transcript. In particular,
they seek an evaluation of the student's personal virtues: Is the student
organized, trustworthy, persistent, thorough? Particularly gifted in
social skills, written or oral communication, or analytical thinking?
Mature, with the sense of humor necessary for the job? Some positions
require particular personal qualities; thus some recipients scan letters
for these. Make your
student memorable to the reader: lots of students make the dean's list,
fewer defend their English honor's thesis from the perspective of Milton.
- If you have
a particular respect or even fondness for the student, express this:
for example, "I think back to the day Charlotte begged me to let
her into my overcrowded class-I'd do it in an instant now," or
"James tries to learn something from everyone, even from those
with whom he disagrees. In this way I would like to be more like him."
- Note reasons
for discrepancies in the student's performance if they arise from extenuating
circumstances (e.g., a prolonged illness, a death in the family).
for Letters of Recommendation
Do I have:
_____ the request for recommendations (including a
stamped, addressed envelope, and due date)?
_____ the student's academic records (including
transcripts and SAT scores, with percentile
_____ a sample of the student's writing?
_____ a list of the student's extracurricular activities,
honors, internships and past employment, and
long-term goals, including interest in the
_____ if necessary, opinions from colleagues who
also know this student?
Writing the letter:
_____ interpreted the student's objective records?
_____ provided a precise quantitative description of
the student's capabilities relative to those of
_____ described the student's personal virtues,
particularly as they relate to the position
_____ provided anecdotal information that will make
the student memorable?
_____ conveyed my genuine respect or liking for the
_____ addressed discrepancies in the student's
a letter of recommendation with the same standard of honesty that you
would insist on for a published paper. Of course, this means that for
some students you don't feel you can say much. So don't. Politely
and honestly refuse as soon as you have decided, suggesting that the
student make the request of someone else. Say, "I'm sorry, I don't
feel as though I can write a letter that would facilitate your acceptance."
It is unfair and unethical to agree to write a positive letter and then
write a negative one.
- Keep a copy
of your letter. If you keep the letter on a word processor, you can
rapidly update it should the student need a new letter.
- Meet the
necessary deadline and let the student know when the letter has been
sent. If you cannot or find that you have forgotten to do so, notify
both the student and the recipient of the letter. Normally, admission
committees and future employers are sympathetic when contacted by the
we don't really teach students; we create opportunities for them to
Robert Vickery, Architecture