Write a Letter of Recommendation

Writing letters of recommendation for students applying to graduate schools and to jobs can be a difficult and time-consuming task for professors or other university personnel. Students may request a letter written to a specific school or job, OR, they may request a general “To Whom It May Concern” letter. Please use departmental letterhead for either of these.

You may want to request specific information from the student in order to write the letter. Some of the things you could ask for are:

  • A current resume.
  • Some academic information such as copies of transcripts or list of courses completed.
  • An explanation of the student’s career goals or type of job or graduate school they hope to enter. (This could be requested in writing or in an individual meeting with you)
  • Any ideas the student has on what they would like you to address in the letter.
  • A phone number and address of where the student can be reached.
  • A deadline for when the letter is needed.

Some faculty develop a form they give to students that requests this information. You may find that the qualities and skills that might predict potential success in graduate school would be different than those for a job, so letters of recommendations for jobs may differ from those for graduate school.

Tell the student how you feel about writing a letter for them. If you do not feel you could provide a thorough enough or positive enough letter on the student, let them know. If you do write anything that is negative in a letter, you should provide evidence for your statements.

The following outline may provide helpful information in determining what to include in a letter of recommendation:

  • Explain Your Contact with the Applicant
    Letters should make clear how well you know the applicant. How many courses has the student had from you? Did you have contact with the applicant outside of class?
  • Personal Attributes
    The letter should attempt to give insight into the student’s personal qualities and his/her interactions with others. Emphasis should be placed on characteristics that indicate special promise or potential problems in the field. The letter could address some of these questions: What first stimulated the applicant’s interest in the field? How well does the applicant organize their thoughts and communicate them? What evidence is there of their judgement, reliability, organizational ability and analytical skills?
  • Academic Achievement
    Comments may be made which amplify information on academic transcripts such as: a) Consistency of performance. Was the student consistent or are there certain anomalies that can be described? b) Extenuating circumstances that might account for atypical grades or course loads, such as illness, employment or extensive extracurricular involvement. c) Degree of difficulty of individual classes and overall course loads e.g., upper division courses taken during freshman year, or especially advanced classes.
  • Employment/Extracurricular Activities
    Since these are listed on most applications, mention them only if you can elaborate meaningfully on them. Activities that indicate motivation for advanced study are of special interest. If involvement was extensive, what was the effect on academic achievement?
  • Honors Received, Academic or Non-Academic
    Explain what achievement the honor represents. Specify the competition or degree of selectivity of such awards.
  • Overall Evaluation
    It is very helpful to make a value judgement, which is an overall appraisal of the applicant’s potential. This evaluation should be based on all the attributes of the applicant, not merely academic performance. Maybe explain how this student compares to other students.

Schools and employers appreciate specific examples or evidence to back up what was said in the letter. The letter should place emphasis on the student’s skills, abilities and experience that fit the requirements of the position or graduate school program. Do not include information that might indicate the individual’s race, color, religion, national origin, age, disability, gender or marital status, UNLESS it is relevant to the position for which they are applying and you’ve discussed it with the student. (For example, if the student is applying for a position in which having a multicultural background would be an asset in carrying out the duties of the job.)

If you are willing to receive calls from employers or schools requesting further information on the applicant, you could include your business phone or home phone, and/or email, in the letter.

Most letters for employment are one page and most letters for graduate school are 1 – 2 pages. Please give the student an approximate time when the letter will be available.

The appearance of the letter is a reflection on both you and the candidate. Typed letters are strongly recommended, with careful proofreading.

Some words/phrases that have impact in letters include:

  • articulate
  • effective
  • sophisticated
  • self-confident
  • intelligent
  • observant
  • significant
  • highly responsible
  • expressive
  • creative
  • efficient
  • shows initiative
  • cooperative
  • imaginative
  • assertive
  • energetic
  • dependable
  • mature
  • innovative
  • self directed