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What this handout is about

Producing an effective recommendation letter involves strategy, research, and planning. This handout is designed to introduce recommenders to some best practices for writing effective recommendation letters.

Deciding whether to write a recommendation

Recommendation letters are likely to receive close scrutiny, and sparse or non-specific recommendations may negatively impact an application. If a recommender is unable or unwilling to produce a recommendation that speaks directly to the individual applicant and position, the selection committee or potential employer may interpret this negatively. If you do not feel that you could provide a positive or detailed recommendation, it is okay to decline!

There are several reasons why it may be appropriate to decline a request for a recommendation:

  • You may not feel comfortable writing a positive letter, either because you have no information about the student or because they did not perform well enough in a class or position.
  • You may feel you are a “bad fit” for the student’s application. For example, if your field of expertise is completely unrelated to the student’s area of interest, you might advise the student to ask recommenders with more relevant backgrounds.
  • You may feel that you lack the necessary credentials to offer a compelling recommendation. For example, graduate student instructors may feel as if they cannot credibly endorse their students’ graduate school applications. Thus, students may be directed to faculty to write letters instead of graduate students.
  • You may know that you will not have time to write and proofread a strong letter before the student’s deadline.

Consider setting up a meeting. This will give you an opportunity to ask about the applicant’s academic background, professional goals, and reasons for applying. It may help to clarify whether this is a one-time request, or whether you are being asked to serve as a recommender for several applications. It’s a good idea to request to see the applicant’s resume, CV, personal statement, or other components of the application. Each of these can give you a sense of the applicant’s goals and help you decide if you would be a good recommender. These items will also allow you to tailor your letter appropriately if you decide to write on the applicant’s behalf.

Confidentiality and protected information

Many applications invite applicants to waive their right to view a letter of recommendation. Confidential letters of recommendation may be viewed as more credible than letters that applicants can access.

You should be aware of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) and your institution’s FERPA-related guidelines when writing recommendation letters. FERPA prohibits disclosure of protected student information such as grades and attendance without the student’s prior written consent. Students who want you to address protected information should specify which records you may disclose, the purpose for which the disclosure is being made, and to whom the information may be disclosed. You can read more about FERPA here: https://www2.ed.gov/policy/gen/guid/fpco/ferpa/index.html.

Writing strong recommendations

After committing to write a recommendation for an applicant, gather information about the opportunity to which they are applying. Besides asking the applicant about the organization, you may also want to reach out to someone in your own professional network who may know something about the audience or take some time to do your own research. Here are some questions to consider:

  • What are the organization’s values and priorities? Some organizations state this information explicitly on their websites and other publications, and this can help you tailor your letter to directly address the audience’s top concerns.
  • What information does the audience want to learn from you? Some institutions will ask you to answer specific questions about the applicant in your letter. Knowing these in advance will give you more time to talk with the student about any information you may need.
  • How is this opportunity a good fit for the applicant? Referencing special features and benefits offered by a position shows that you’ve done your homework, which can add to the weight of your recommendation by demonstrating that you are willing to invest extra work in your student’s success. You will also be able to speak to the applicant’s fit for the position in greater detail.

Keep in mind that nearly all recommendations contain a positive appraisal of an applicant’s abilities and character, and it costs recommenders almost nothing to offer general and unsubstantiated praise of an applicant. Letters that claim an applicant is “the best student I’ve ever worked with” or “the hardest working employee I’ve ever had” are likely to meet with skepticism, unless the writer includes specific evidence to back up these claims. Even letters that contain genuine praise may come across as form letters unless you can speak to unique evidence about the student that corroborates your positive assessment.

Many different kinds of information may constitute evidence in a recommendation, and it is up to you to determine what would be most convincing to the audience. Here are some guidelines for what you may want to include or avoid:

  • Do describe your relationship with the applicant. Say how long you’ve known the applicant and in what capacity. This information helps the audience understand how well you know the applicant. For example, sharing that you’ve advised a student for three years and taught them in two senior seminars demonstrates that you know your applicant better than a recommender who has only recently met the student or who has only taught the student in a large lecture class.
  • Do include quantitative data about a student’s performance in a class or an employee’s performance in a position. Because raw grade point averages or other performance metrics are sometimes difficult to translate across different contexts, try to rank students against other students. For example, rather than saying “Judith received an A in my class,” aim for evidence that tells the audience how Judith’s performance compared to her classmates’: “Judith was among the top 5% of students in her large lecture class.” (Remember, if you do include specific grades in your letter, you must have written consent from the student as per FERPA.)
  • Do compare applicants to students who have been placed into other positions. A statement like, “Over the past five years, other students with undergraduate research experience similar to Amer’s have been accepted to graduate programs at X, Y, and Z,” gives the audience a sense of where Amer stands in a wider population of successful students. Including comments like these also indicates that you have a good sense of what makes an applicant successful.
  • Do mention the applicant’s personal and/or intellectual strengths as they pertain to the application. For example, it may be helpful to emphasize a study abroad applicant’s open-mindedness. Again, include appropriate evidence for this claim, which may involve discussing or even directly citing the student’s written work in your class.
  • Do explain why you think the applicant is a good fit. Selection committees are often interested in hearing how students would contribute to the intellectual and professional climate of their institution. Given your experience with the student, help the audience see the type of employee or scholar the student will be: “Casey’s research experience in early-modern Arabic poetry would make them an ideal addition to Professor Seif’s Syrian cultural archival project.” If possible, mention the position/school/fellowship by name. This proves that you’ve taken enough interest in the letter to target it for each recipient. It will not always be possible to tailor recommendations to each program; for example, many postgraduate programs are moving to common applications that send the same letters to all programs to which students apply.
  • Don’t shy away from discussing the applicant’s weaknesses—but only if those weaknesses are likely to already be on the audience’s radar. For example, you may have insight into why your student received an uncharacteristically low grade in your class during their final semester that could alleviate an audience’s concerns. You may draw attention to the applicant’s growth as well as the potential for continued growth in the new position. Keep in mind, however, that recommendation letters are expected to be positive in tone, so proceed with caution when discussing applicants’ weaknesses. Specifically avoid commenting on personality traits or other topics that are irrelevant to the application.
  • Don’t rely on generalizations, clichés, or platitudes. Every good applicant will be “dedicated,” “hard-working,” and “enthusiastic.” Praise like this is likely to appear in dozens of other letters for other applicants, so you need to say more to help your applicant stand out. Include specific examples to support these descriptors. Convey the unique strengths of your student, especially any that you believe speak directly to the audience’s interests or values. Also pay special attention to any language that may inadvertently convey gender or other biases. For example, some studies have reported that language that pertains to effort (rather than accomplishments), personal life details (rather than relevant professional information), and emotional capacities (rather than academic or professional ability) more frequently appear in recommendations for women than for men. Focusing on traits that are demonstrable with evidence and germane to the program or position to which the student is applying is the best way to avoid implicit bias in your letters.
  • Don’t include too much information about you or your class. Although some brief background information about the context in which you know the student is appropriate, do not spend so much time discussing course or assignment details that the letter is no longer focused upon the applicant.
  • Don’t offer tepid praise or left-handed compliments. Half-hearted comments are almost guaranteed to attract the wrong kind of attention. Although you may honestly report that your student “completed all course assignments on time” or “was an adequate writer,” the audience will likely interpret these phrases as veiled criticism. Avoiding tepid praise is more difficult than it seems. After you’ve finished writing the letter, read over it with a critical eye and try to assume the worst of the student. Do any of your sentences invite uncharitable interpretation?
  • Don’t simply summarize the applicant’s CV or resume. As with tepid praise, simply reiterating what the audience already knows from other parts of the application implies that you either don’t know or don’t care enough about the applicant to offer your own appraisal. It is appropriate to highlight a special component of a student’s resume and explain why you believe this aspect of the student makes them a great candidate, but don’t waste your opportunity to offer your own valuable endorsement by simply listing the applicant’s accomplishments.

Formatting recommendation letters

After you’ve decided what to write in your recommendation, you will need to decide how to write it. How long should the recommendation be? Should it be written on official letterhead? To whom should it be addressed? Will the letter submitted electronically, or will it be mailed?

Length: Just as there is sometimes no prescribed length for application essays, there is no standard length for recommendation letters. Most recommendations tend to be around 1 to 1.5 single-spaced pages long, although some may be longer if you have a lot to share. Business and law school recommendations tend to be briefer than graduate school recommendations. In general, try to strike a balance between writing too little (which suggests you have nothing to say about the applicant) and writing too much, which may be annoying to audiences who are reading dozens or hundreds of recommendations for a single position.

Letterhead: When possible, write recommendations on official letterhead and sign them using a handwritten signature. Producing letters on official letterhead both adds to your credibility as a recommender and demonstrates that you care enough about the applicant to put finishing touches on your endorsement. This may include sending an envelope with your signature across the seal. Some application programs ask recommenders to compose or paste their recommendations into online forms. In these cases, you would not submit the letter on formal letterhead. Learning in advance how you will need to submit your recommendation can help you avoid unnecessary work and accurately gauge the time required to submit your letter.

Salutation: Address recommendation letters as specifically as possible. If the applicant is applying for a position within a firm or office and you know who will receive the letter, address the letter to that person, like “Dear Dr. Anderson.” If you don’t know who, specifically, will receive the letter, address the recommendation to the target audience, like “Dear Fulbright Committee”. Avoid vacuous salutations like “To Whom it May Concern.” Also avoid informal greetings, including those you might use in an email or other correspondence, like “Hi,” “Hello,” “Good afternoon,” etc. “Dear” is the standard formal salutation in English.

Closing: End the letter with a simple closing word or phrase like “Sincerely,” “Regards,” or “Cordially” or by thanking the audience for considering your endorsement. Avoid personal and emotive language. If you would be willing to answer any additional questions the institution or employer may have about the applicant, it is appropriate to invite them to contact you before closing the letter.

Conclusion

Letters of recommendation inform the decisions of admissions committees, employers, funding agencies, and other organizations who are trying to choose between multiple candidates. Your efforts to create strong letters make a difference.

If you commit to writing a letter of recommendation, follow through. Keep track of deadlines and start early, as you may discover that you need additional information from the student or institution, and you will want to have time to request this information and incorporate it into your recommendation.

Finally, consider whether you are willing to do more than write a recommendation. Students may need help with other parts of their application, such as statements of purpose or writing samples. Since you likely have insight into what graduate programs or employers are looking for, you are in a unique position to help applicants with these other materials as well.

Works consulted

We consulted these works while writing this handout. This is not a comprehensive list of resources on the handout’s topic, and we encourage you to do your own research to find the latest publications on this topic. Please do not use this list as a model for the format of your own reference list, as it may not match the citation style you are using. For guidance on formatting citations, please see the UNC Libraries citation tutorial. We revise these tips periodically and welcome feedback.

“How to Write Good Letters of Recommendation.” n.d. MIT Admissions. Accessed July 2, 2019. https://mitadmissions.org/apply/parents-educators/writingrecs/

“Writing Letters of Recommendation.” n.d. Brown University: Fellowships and Research. Accessed July 2, 2019. https://www.brown.edu/academics/college/fellowships/information-resources/writing-letters-recommendation/writing-letters-recommendation

“Writing Letters of Recommendation.” n.d. Stanford: Teaching Commons. Accessed July 2, 2019. https://teachingcommons.stanford.edu/resources/teaching-resources/how-evaluate-students/writing-letters-recommendation

“Writing Letters of Recommendation.” n.d. Yale: Fellowships and Funding. Accessed July 2, 2019. https://funding.yale.edu/faculty-staff-recommenders/writing-letters

Madera, Juan M., Michelle R. Hebl, and Randi C. Martin. 2009. “Gender and Letters of Recommendation for Academia: Agentic and Communal Differences.” Journal of Applied Psychology 94: 1591–99.

Whitaker, Manya. 2016. “Tips for Writing Recommendation Letters.” Inside Higher Ed. December 2. https://www.insidehighered.com/advice/2016/12/02/how-write-stronger-letters-recommendation-students-essay

Trix, Frances, and Carolyn Psenka. 2003. “Exploring the Color of Glass: Letters of Recommendation for Female and Male Medical Faculty.” Discourse & Society 14: 191–220.


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