On Writing and Decoding Recommendation Letters

While a time-consuming task for seasoned professors, it can be much more daunting for junior faculty who may never have seen a letter of recommendation before, including those sent on their behalf, writes Mohammed Albakry.

December 6, 2022
Illustration of a laptop with a letter over the screen.
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It is around this time of year, when letter-writing season is in full swing, that many professors receive numerous requests for recommendations from students and colleagues applying for graduate admissions or job openings. The effort that goes into composing such letters can be a time-consuming task for seasoned professors, but it can be a much more daunting one for junior faculty who may never have even seen a letter of recommendation before—including the ones sent on their own behalf when they applied for graduate schools and academic positions.

Unlike dissertations or research papers that enjoy wider exposure, letters of recommendation often lack public presence and thus have been described as an “occluded” or “behind-the-scenes” institutional genre not easily accessible to outsiders. Like peer-review writing, the genre is taken for granted and hardly ever taught. Graduate students in professional development seminars or workshops are trained in crafting CVs and cover letters, as well as giving job talks and conference presentations, among other career-preparation skills. But they aren’t often advised on how to read and write thoughtful and informative recommendation letters.

The value of the letter of recommendation has even been called into question lately in spite of its traditional role in the admission or hiring process. The critics argue that it is a flawed genre full of superlatives and exaggerated claims or that it does not necessarily possess predictive validity for actual performance.

They have also cast doubt on its supposed egalitarian access by pointing out that the opportunity for candidates to obtain such letters of support is not equal. Obtaining a good recommendation letter presumes having a professional network—something that might be more available to candidates who hail from high-prestige institutions with larger budgets to fund participation in professional development workshops and attendance at academic conferences.

These arguments have merit and should be considered in any review of admission and hiring practices. But as defenders of recommendation letters maintain, all application materials—including CVs, writing samples, cover letters, teaching philosophy statements and so on—are flawed and biased in one way or another, but they can still provide us with useful information. Every data source can have its shortcomings, but we should still consider its utility.

I come down on the side of the defenders of the letter of recommendation in this debate, but my main concern here is not so much to defend its value but rather to shed light on some of its discursive and linguistic conventions. I don’t mean to provide specific formulas on how a recommendation letter should be composed but merely guidelines informed by my experience in and scholarly work on academic support writing, specifically in the liberal arts and education fields. Like other genres, the letter of recommendation is ever fluid, and its conventions can shift somewhat, depending on differing audiences, disciplinary expectations and institutional contexts. Still, we can find some discernible, rather universal, patterns in its structure, content and language—thus allowing for some general suggestions.

Establish how you know the applicant. You should explain in detail the depth and capacity of your interpersonal relationship with the applicant by addressing how long you have known them and under what conditions—teaching, advising or otherwise. You essentially want to make the case for why you are qualified to recommend the applicant. After the customary opening, “I am writing to recommend X …” this section usually comes before the main evaluative part of the letter.

Discuss the applicant’s qualifications and credentials in concrete terms. This is the meat of the recommendation letter—the part that is supposed to showcase the applicant’s abilities and accomplishments. Some recommenders, however, choose to outline their own credentials first by situating themselves overtly or implicitly as paragons in their field, presumably to validate their role as endorsers of the applicant. The danger of talking too much about yourself as a recommender, as opposed to devoting most of the letter space to the applicant, is that letter readers might infer that you either don’t know the recommendee well enough or have little to say about the strength of their application.

The more compelling recommendations are the ones that focus on the applicant in specific terms. They often reveal things that are not evident in an applicant’s transcripts, test scores, personal statement, cover letter and so forth. And they show and tell at the same time. Rather than simply listing the applicant’s positive traits, like having a sense of commitment and intellectual curiosity, they provide concrete details and real-life examples to tell a story about how those traits play out in that person’s research or teaching—and thus build a more compelling portrait.

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Attend to nuanced language. Letters of recommendation tend to overstate positive qualities and understate negative ones. Yet to maintain the credibility of the genre, you should avoid hyperbole while still highlighting the applicant’s strengths and aptitudes. As a colleague once put it to me, “I feel that something is amiss if the recommendation has the applicant walking on water. Sometimes a recommendation is too effusive and implies that there’s nothing the applicant can’t do, and that’s just impossible.”

The glowing nature of the genre, however, does not necessarily get in the way of fair representation or successful communication. Recommenders often strategically employ subtle language including modal verbs—“can,” “could,” “will,” “would,” “might,” “should” and the like—and adjectives to hedge or reinforce confidence in regard to an applicant’s ability. A statement such as “I am certain that they will quickly establish themselves as an outstanding researcher” has a stronger tone than “I believe that they could do solid work at the doctoral level.” On the praise spectrum, “solid” or “good” are less forceful than “extraordinary” and “outstanding,” and the same applies to the difference between “I am certain” versus “I believe” in marking level of confidence.

Reference the applicant’s character. No letter of recommendation is complete without reference to character. Despite the letter’s inherent objective to vouch personally for the applicant, it is surprising that many writers don’t often mention personal values, preferring to praise only professional accomplishments. When they do comment on the personality traits of the individual in question, they often preface their remarks as a “personal aside” in the final section of the written recommendation, focusing on emotional and interpersonal strengths: “amiable,” “enthusiastic,” “collegial,” “a good team member,” “generous,” “ambitious,” “determined,” “considerate,” “resilient” and so on. But such character-related descriptions should not be deemed a peripheral afterthought. They might, in fact, be the most important information that you share to influence the selection committee.

While the letter of recommendation might be a flawed genre, it is not a failed one. When a letter is nuanced and carefully crafted, it can be very revealing. And if we learn to be sensitive to its conventions and patterns, we can use it to provide a wealth of information and insights about applicants. If you are an early-career academic, becoming more cognizant of the inner workings of those conventions and patterns can help you develop the facility to produce and decode the genre far more effectively.

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Mohammed Albakry is a professor of English and applied linguistics at Middle Tennessee State University.

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