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Pencil poised over lined paper ready to write a letter

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Academic reference letters are an essential aspect of academic life. Nearly every educator will be asked to write a range of reference letters during their career. In my long experience of doing so, I’ve identified several key items to include in such letters.

Generally, reference letters are best when tailored for a specific job vacancy or academic program. Specific letters of reference tend to have greater weight than a generic letter does.

Usually, the opening paragraph identifies what the letter is for and how the writer knows the candidate. For instance, you might start a letter along these lines:

Dear search committee,

I am writing in support of Jennifer Norden’s candidacy for the vacant assistant professor position in elementary education at Winona State University. I had the opportunity to supervise Jennifer’s dissertation committee and taught her in several courses.

You should keep your initial salutation generic until a specific person is identified and then name them specifically. For academic positions, if it is not clear if the person who is to receive the letter has a doctorate, but you can assume they do. Few people without a doctorate will be unhappy if they are mistakenly assumed to have one, yet the reverse is not always true. Or you could add a job title—for instance, Dear Dr. Alice Jones, or Dear Chair Smith, could both be options.

It is also common for applicants to ask you for a generic letter, because some applicants may feel that asking for multiple letters is burdensome. Still you should always offer a specifically tailored letter, especially if a candidate wishes, and then consider providing a second, generic letter. Also offer to update the generic letter for other needs in the future. Here’s a generic version of the more specific letter shown above.

Dear reader,

I am writing in support of Jennifer Norden’s candidacy for a faculty position. I had the opportunity to supervise Jennifer’s dissertation committee and taught her in several courses.

To complete the opening paragraph, write a brief summary that includes how long you have known the candidate.

Then, for the main body of the letter, follow the rules of a news article in many ways by putting the important information up front.

In all my interactions with Jennifer, I have found her to be the consummate professional and to always consider the need to work in the best interest of her students. She is one of the best aspiring educators with whom I have had the pleasure to work. She put in a great deal of effort to ensure her students have the best possible lessons.

Focus on the facets of the candidate that are relevant to the specific application process and the job they are pursuing. For instance, in reference letters for a candidate seeking a job in an academic program, such facets would most likely include whether they a good fit for the program or career field in question, which of the candidate’s specific accomplishments stand out, what has been their previous level of academic accomplishment and any specific obstacles or life circumstances that they have overcome.

Articulating how the candidate interacts with others is usually worth another paragraph. For students, how do they relate to their peers, especially students who are not similar to them or might be marginalized in some way? It’s also good to highlight how much effort level they usually put into their work if you have a good understanding of how it compares to their peers’. For an aspiring teacher candidate, the readers will want to know about the candidate’s relationships with students, other teachers, teaching assistants and other support staff, administrators and parents.

The concluding paragraph of the letter is a chance for you to make a final recommendation and offer to provide additional information if the individual or search team receiving your wishes to reach out to you. I suggest something along these lines:

I can recommend her in the highest of terms as an excellent addition to your instructional team. She is an incredibly hardworking and naturally talented teacher. If I can do anything else to further her candidacy, please feel free to contact me using the information below.

Make sure that the final letter is printed on your institutional letterhead. Do not rely on institutional contact numbers included on it, as some phone systems at higher education institutions are notoriously frustrating to navigate. Include your best direct phone number and/or email contact for the selection team to use under your signature block.

Other Considerations

You need to consider a few other issues when writing a reference letter. First, do not agree to write a letter for a student or employee whom you cannot fully support. Over the past decades, many reference checks were less than supportive, and many letters were written in such a way as to convey potentially equivocal meanings. Yet when an applicant hears that their references were mediocre or not supportive, it is almost always a surprise.

If you cannot be supportive, suggest that the applicant find another person who might know them better or be more aligned with their program and job aspirations. This is not to suggest that supervisors should provide anything less than direct and honest references, but being listed as a supervisor is different than agreeing to be a reference or to write a letter.

You should also make sure that you have time to draft a letter in a timely manner and that you understand the final deadline. If you don’t have time, be honest with the requester or reprioritize the letter to meet that deadline. One student complained to me recently that one of his key references took more than three months to submit a letter he had agreed to write. Letters of reference are often the hang-up for the completion of application packages. In some cases, that could delay a student’s acceptance to a graduate program. In job applications, the delay might cost the application the opportunity to be considered for a position.

If you do have the necessary time, send a draft to the requester so they can make sure the letter is accurate and acceptable. It allows for another set of eyes to proof the letter as well.

In short, while writing a letter of reference can sometimes seem like just one more chore to complete, it requires your careful thought. And if you follow some of the appropriate guidelines, you’ll be performing a key service: supporting the aspirations of your students and colleagues.

Steve Baule is the director of the educational doctorate program at Winona State University in Winona, Minn.

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