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Writing a Recommendation Letter

November 17, 2010 1 comment

I have been asked to write a few recommendation letters lately and wanted to share some thoughts on the process that I have been trying to follow. Letters of recommendation are required for everything from fellowship applications, graduate school applications to even conference travel grants. Re-using the same letter for every venue is probably the worst thing one can do for their students. Tweaking the letter for different universities when applying for graduate school is probably fine, but using the same letter for a fellowship that is clearly written for a graduate school application just makes you look like you didnt even take the effort.

Letter of Recommendation

Here are some guidelines in somewhat chronological order (from the time students request to sending the letter out):

  • Let students know that you have other commitments and that if they need a letter from you, they need to give you at least a month’s notice. Writing a good letter takes (or should take) a day or two and requires the professor to set aside a significant chunk of time for it. So plan ahead and let me know as soon as you think you might want to get a letter from me.
  • What is the letter for? Try to find some information regarding the venue and maybe get detailed information such as the guidelines for fellowship application, grant application etc.
  • Ask the student who else is writing a letter to make sure that you can emphasize specific strengths of the student. This may be preceded with a question to the student such as what would the student like you to highlight in the letter. For example, if the student only took a class from you but has worked in another professor’s lab, it might be best to highlight the student’s academic performance and let the other professor address the research abilities of the student.
  • As you become a senior professor, managing the deadlines of all the student letters of recommendation can get out of hand quickly. Imagine managing the deadlines for 7/8 letters for 4/5 students, or more in some cases. A good system is to have the student make up a calendar of deadlines and email you the list of deadlines, so you can post it somewhere or add it to your calendar system.
  • Before you start writing a letter, it might be a good idea to get some more information from the student. A few things that you could request from the student are:
    • A writing sample (if you are expecting to comment on the writing skills of the student and dont have anything other than a project report of the student’s final project).
    • A detailed curriculum vitae
    • Talk to the student about his/her career goals and the schools s/he is applying to. Take notes when meeting with the student, as it will immensely help you when writing the letter.
    • In addition to the previous item, get the official statement of purpose that the student is planning to submit with their application.
    • An unofficial transcript will help learn more about the student’s academic performance.
    • Other samples of work such as project reports for other classes, final papers, etc.
    • Requesting the student for a list of achievements from the student will be useful when you write the letter.

So what makes a great recommendation letter? Even though we may not know it, we are pretty good at differentiating between a great recommendation letter and an average (barely thumbs up) kind of a letter. Here are some things to keep in mind when writing a letter (if you plan to write a great one; If not, read the last part of this post about gently recommending students to other potential recommenders):

  • Back up claims with anecdotes. Merely saying that ‘Mary is a hardworking student’ sounds like she works hard but doesnt get much done. Back it up with claims to make it more believable. Remember that honesty leads to believability.
  • Provide sufficient details about your course/research experience to give the reader some perspective about the situation in which you knew the student. Top 2% in class of 300 or Best student in the last 10 years (use very sparingly) is very useful to the reader.
  • Providing context to school specific situations such as which ones are the harder courses or highlight any specific constraints that you may know of regarding the class, lab or institution.
  • There is nothing wrong with mentioning any fault that the student has and has shown initiative to overcome. Speaking/Writing skills can be one such thing where you can say something like ‘Joe worked towards improving his writing skills through the semester and has shown significant progress.’ Saying something slightly critical doesnt necessarily make your recommendation useless. If anything it adds a little credibility to otherwise overly high flowing appreciation that seems to pervade recommendation letters nowadays.
  • Use of words such as “unquestionably, distinguished himself/herself, extremely positive, ..” that are unequivocally positive make the letter much stronger.
  • Other things that you could include are: length of time that you have known the student, contributions to class discussion, interpersonal skills, career goals, persistence/tenacity, ability to come up with and implement original research ideas, communication skills (written, verbal, interpersonal) and most importantly, potential for success in fellowship/program.
  • Unconscious bias: Stay away from doubt raising sentences such as “appears to be highly motivated”, since it doesnt help the student and only implies that the student may not be motivated but only appears to be. Discussing the appearance of a female student/postdoc in a recommendation letter is strictly forbidden and just wrong!
  • Provide detailed contact information with your title, mailing address, phone number and email address.

In the situation that you do not have anything positive to say about the student, you should try talking the student into getting a letter from someone else and very politely turn down the request. You should clearly inform the student about what you can comment on and what you cannot address in the letter. ┬áRemember that a letter coming from you means something and misleading letters for fellowship/grad school applications can only hurt your and your university’s reputation.

Last but not the least, remember to proofread carefully and print the letter out on department letterhead.

Click here for a few samples and here for a few other guidelines.

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