Tips for Writing Recommendation Letters

Faculty members often seem to lack insight into how to write strong letters on their students’ behalf, writes Manya Whitaker, who offers 10 guidelines for improvement.

December 2, 2016
 

A few years ago, I wrote “A Letter to College Students (From All Profs)” in which I provided advice to students about how to ask for letters of recommendation. Interestingly, just as students do not intuitively know how to find letter writers, faculty members, too, seem to lack automatic insight into how to write strong letters on their students’ behalf. In our years of training to become researchers, I doubt many of us are taught to write recommendation letters.

If I may be frank for a moment … letters of recommendation suck! It sucks to read them, and it sucks to write them. Still, almost all institutions, programs and employers require two to four letters for admission, acceptance and employment, and, despite the hassles those letters can sometimes bring, I believe that they should. Recommendation letters are often the deciding factors among candidates. They offer insight into an applicant’s temperament, working style, manageability and potential for professional growth. They are meant to be an opportunity for someone close to the candidate to explicate how and why they should be afforded this new experience instead of the other 200 applicants.

Toward that end, I believe a recommendation-letter writer bears a heavy burden that they do not always treat with respect. I know that some professors allow their students to write their own letters. Some copy and paste large portions of letters they have written before or simply find a template online and fill in the blanks.

I realize that academics are busy and that recommendation letters are an added task to our overloaded schedules. However, the fact of the matter is that letters of recommendation are an integral part of academe’s business model. And we should never forget that at some point, someone wrote a letter on our behalf. A recommendation letter may have been the aspect of our application that tipped the scales in our favor. Writing on behalf of our students is an opportunity to pay it forward.

Here are some general guidelines that I have compiled from my experiences as an anxious applicant reading my many letters of recommendation, as someone on admissions and hiring committees, and now as a full-time professor writing at least a dozen of these letters each year.

  1. Decide whether you can write a good letter for the applicant. Consider your schedule, the nature and quality of your relationship with the applicant, and how well you know them. If you find you cannot think of what you would write in a letter of recommendation, perhaps you should decline. Which brings me to …
  2. It is OK to say no. I encourage faculty members to develop a policy for writing recommendations that includes requirements for academic performance, a time frame or whatever else you need to feel comfortable writing. Make sure your policy is truthful and instituted consistently. If you say you need three weeks to write, do not decline one person because they asked 10 days before the due date but agree to write one for another person who did the same. People talk. You do not want to develop a bad reputation. Remember, students evaluate us, too.
  3. Request as much information as possible before you begin writing. Ask the student to provide material about themselves and the opportunity or program to which they are applying. That includes a résumé or CV, personal statement and essays, answers to application questions, transcripts, and, of course, a description of the institution/program/job to which they are applying. These materials are useful complements to more-personal narratives.
  4. Do some research. If you agree to write the letter and they do not send you the requested material, take three minutes to Google the institution/program/job. I am not suggesting that you do all of the legwork, but information about even the location of the job could help you craft your letter. If that seems like too much work, just revisit the student’s performance in your course and ask colleagues for their input. Some information is better than nothing.
  5. Set aside ample time. A good recommendation letter, like a good paper, is well researched, requires planning and takes revision. If you can write a letter in less than an hour, it may not be your best work. If the letter is only two paragraphs double spaced, you may not be going into enough detail. After all, don’t you expect students to be thoughtful and thorough in their writing? We should do no less for them.
  6. Be specific. This may be the most important piece of advice. Reading vague letters of recommendation filled with generalized claims of awesomeness may be the most annoying part of being on a search committee. Provide specific examples to support your statements. Try to paint a picture so that readers get a true sense of who the applicant is in real life -- or at least outside your classes.
  7. Avoid cliché descriptors and platitudes. Words like organized, team worker, creative, passionate and dedicated are found in almost every recommendation letter. Regardless of how accurate these descriptions may be, they come across as shallow when you read the same sentence over and over. Instead, think about skills that would be useful in the potential position and see if the applicant possesses them. If not, identify what they do possess and explicitly state why that particular skill is beneficial.
  8. Organize the letter chronologically or thematically. Have an introduction that identifies the position being applied for, describes the nature and duration of your relationship with the applicant, and previews what you will discuss. Be sure to close with a clear statement of endorsement for acceptance/hire and include contact information for questions. This sounds like a no-brainer, but many recommendation letters are devoid of the basics (which is usually a sign that it is a form letter).
  9. Be honest. Be original. Be genuine. That means not having people write their own letters. It means not writing the same letter for every person. It definitely means not borrowing templates from the internet. Form letters are easily identified and often result in the candidate’s application being set aside. If you do not even want to write a letter of recommendation on their behalf, why would I want to hire them?
  10. Follow through. This student has trusted you with an important task. You accepted, so it is your responsibility to do it well and on time. One late or missing component of an application can render a package incomplete and thus not up for consideration.

That’s it. Writing letters of recommendation is not the most enjoyable or simple task, but it can be ultimately one of the most rewarding. I find it an honorably humbling experience to play a role in helping someone enter the next phase of their life.

Maybe that’s why I’m a teacher.

Bio

Manya Whitaker is an assistant professor of education at Colorado College and a regular contributor to “Conditionally Accepted.”

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