Writing Letters of Recommendation
Faculty and administrators may be asked to write letters of recommendation or provide verbal references for students, alumni, and colleagues who are seeking internships, work, research, residencies, fellowships, and graduate study. Applications may call for anywhere from two to eight letters of recommendation from those who are familiar with the applicant and can speak to his or her abilities, interests, and potential for success within the proposed opportunity. The recommendation letter is a chance for a review committee to learn more about the applicant than what is portrayed through the application, résumé or curriculum vitae, transcript, personal statement and other supporting materials. Recommendations are critical because they provide a personalized perspective on an applicant's abilities from a credible source.
While the focus of a letter of recommendation is on the applicant, it is important to keep in mind that letters of recommendation are also a reflection of the writer—his or her writing ability, level of interest and commitment are conveyed through the letter. Do not take on this task if you have reservations about the applicant or your ability to effectively recommend him or her for a specific program. Be honest with the person seeking a recommendation if you feel that you are not the best choice for a reference and encourage him or her to seek a more appropriate endorsement. Keep in mind that some individuals might not understand how to choose the best recommender for their particular opportunity.
Before agreeing to write a letter of recommendation, please consider the following:
- Do I know the applicant well enough to serve as her recommender?
- Will my recommendation serve as strong endorsement for his candidacy in the proposed program?
- Do I think the applicant is qualified and well suited for the proposed opportunity?
- Can I comment on the qualities that are important for the proposed area of study, research or work, such as the applicant's academic and/or artistic ability, leadership skills, creativity, motivation and goals?
- Has the applicant provided me with all necessary supporting documents to be able to compose a well-rounded recommendation? For example, a current résumé, personal statement describing motivation for applying to a specific opportunity, recommendation instructions and program or organizational information.
- Do I have enough time in my schedule to complete the recommendation by the deadline?
- Do I have the necessary logistical information to be able to submit the recommendation online or by postal mail? Should I be prepared to provide a verbal recommendation via telephone?
Recommenders may be asked to address specific questions in the recommendation or may be asked to compose a letter with few direct instructions.
- Some programs and professional opportunities may simply contact a reference by telephone to inquire about a candidate. The applicant should still furnish appropriate material describing his or her background and interest in the area in which you will be called upon to provide a reference.
- Length may vary depending on application criteria, but longer doesn't necessarily mean better. Some of the most effective letters are impactful yet concise. Be aware that some online submission software could have limited word counts for the letter, which can potentially cause a last-minute rewrite of the letter to fit to online requirements. Log on and begin your account to check in advance.
- Make sure that your recommendation addresses the request by reviewing the application material provided by the applicant thoroughly. Be sure to include specific details. If a letter sounds vague or generic, it will not be helpful.
- If the letter is sent via postal mail, make sure it is done so in a sealed, signed envelope (this can be either mailed by you or the applicant, pending his or her instructions). If the letter is being mailed to the applicant, instructions often request that the recommender sign the seal of the envelope to show that it has not been tampered with. Be sure to comply with this request and all other details.
- Description of your relationship to the applicant and how long you have known him or her.
- Clear opinion of your level of endorsement for the applicant. For example, strongly recommend, recommend without reservations, recommend, etc.
- In some cases, it might be useful to establish your authority in a relevant area by including a very brief mention of your expertise.
- Make the case that the applicant is a strong candidate for the opportunity and support your case with compelling evidence and engaging details.
- A discussion of the student's academic and/or creative ability that may utilize project work, in-class participation and outside classroom activities to illuminate achievement. Admissions staff members can see what grade was earned from a transcript, so they would prefer a more qualitative description of strengths in relation to the opportunity.
- Discussion of personal characteristics that might be desirable, such as ambition, dedication, integrity, independence, responsibility, leadership, and analytical ability.
The National Association of Colleges and Employers is a useful resource for professional references and also highlights legal issues related to reference letters.
The Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning at Harvard University offers Cynthia Verba's GSAS Guide for Teaching Fellows on Writing Letters of Recommendation is an extensive guide for writing academic recommendations with samples, and views honing this skill as highly important to faculty.