Writing Recommendation Letters

Most experienced faculty members have writing a letter of recommendation down to a fine art. They’ve recognized and internalized the conventions of the genre, and can adapt them to the different types of letter they are called upon to write every year. These include letters for summer internships, professional schools, graduate schools, fellowships, faculty positions, and other types of employment. The following suggestions will help you as you begin to master the composition of letters of recommendation.

Planning the Letter

Determine whether or not you feel comfortable writing the letter. Do you know the student sufficiently well? Does your knowledge warrant a strong and sincere recommendation? If the answer to either question is “no,” you should probably decline.
Ask the person you are recommending to provide you with information that will help you write a well-documented letter, such as transcripts, c.v. or résumé, personal statement, grant proposal, or writing sample. Be sure to ask for information about the purpose of your letter.

Composing the Letter

Consider your audience: who will read the letter and for what purpose?
Identify the student’s or colleague’s intellectual skills and abilities as well as relevant personal qualities. Provide specific examples from your interactions with the student or colleague to support your observations.
Describe what the person you are recommending will contribute to the program of study or position for which she is applying. Again, be specific.
Decide whether you want to compare the student or colleague to others with whom you’ve worked or if you want to recommend him solely on his own merits. (We suggest doing the former only when the comparison will be illustrative or meaningful for those who read the letter.)

Recording the Letter

Keep records--including hard copies, with dates mailed--of all letters that you write. Not only can such documentation be useful to clear up mailing mix-ups, but also previous letters provide useful models for future letters.