Advice on writing a letter of recommendation.
Thank you for writing a letter of recommendation! This is a vital service that you provide for our students, and I am happy to assist you in any way. Here are some guidelines that will help you as you write your letter.
Before you write the letter
- Feel free to say “No.” Students are looking for strong letters of recommendation that can set them apart from their peers. If you don’t feel you know a student well enough or simply don’t have the time, tell him/her that. It is better to risk hurting the student’s feelings than to provide a letter that says, “I don’t feel qualified to judge him in this area.”
- Understand the award or program to which the student is applying. The student should be able to provide you with details about the overall program and the application itself. Ask the student for links to the website, selection criteria and profiles of past recipients. You should have a good idea of what the reviewers are looking for before you sit down to write the letter. If you don’t, talk to the student and/or email the director of post-graduate fellowships for clarification.
- Carefully read the official instructions for letters of recommendation. These often come from the award or program directly to you once the student registers you as a recommender, but may be available as hard copy or on the website. They cover things like deadlines, formatting, content and other expectations. Even if you have written a letter for this program before, it is important to review the instructions in case any criteria have changed. If you have any questions about the instructions, it is important to clarify the answers before you write your letter.
- Ask the student which traits or experiences are most important for you to address in your letter. He/she may need you to focus on a particular area and avoid overlapping with information from other letter writers.
- Ask the student for copies of his/her application materials including drafts of essays, applications forms, transcripts and the like. You may also want to look at his/her résumé.
- If you had the student in a class, ask him/her for copies of assignments and exams from that course to refresh your memory. If you didn't have the student in your class, ask about other projects that may be relevant to the application.
Once you have a good understanding of the award or program and the student’s qualifications, you are ready to write a strong letter of recommendation.
Writing a letter of recommendation
While every award is different, here are some general guidelines.
- Tailor the letter to the program. One student may ask you to write many letters of recommendation. While it is time consuming, it is better for the student if each letter from you reflects his/her strengths in the criteria that particular award or program is looking for.
- Address the letter correctly and as precisely as you can. If you have the name of the committee chair, “Dear Mr. Smith” is appropriate. A broad “To Whom It May Concern” is too general, whereas “To the Smith Scholarship Review Committee” can do in a pinch. Make sure you correctly state the name of the award or program that the student is applying to as well as the organization. E.g. “I am writing in support of Pat Jones who is applying for the Junior Fellows Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.” rather than “Pat Jones is applying for the Carnegie Junior Fellowship.”
- Give specifics. The bulk of your letter should be detailed examples of situations where the student demonstrated the target criteria. Make sure that you discuss not only the task or assignment, but also the specific actions that the student took to achieve the results.
- Mind the length. Unless the guidelines for a particular award state a limit to the contrary, your letter should be 1.5-2 pages long. If you cannot generate enough details to write a letter of this length, it is better to tell the student to ask someone else for a reference. If you go much beyond 2.5 pages, there is a chance that your letter will not be read in its entirety.
- Rank the student (optional). While you don’t want to name other students in your letter, it is certainly fair to compare the student to others you have worked with. “Pat is one of the top three students I have worked with ...” is a very strong recommendation.
- Weigh the pros and cons (optional). Discussing the strengths and weaknesses of an applicant gives the reviewers a fuller picture of the candidate. Obviously, a positive recommendation gives more time and weight to the strengths, but addressing areas of growth often prevents a letter from sounding hyperbolic.
There are many books available on writing outstanding letters of recommendation. One of the best is “Writing Recommendation Letters” by Joe Schall of Penn State. He covers not only general guidelines such as those I have listed here, but also how to handle difficult or delicate subjects in a letter of recommendation. The book is available in your department office, in the office of postgraduate fellowships or online at https://www.e-education.psu.edu/writingrecommendationlettersonline/ .
The last word: deadlines
While campus deadlines are occasionally flexible, external deadlines are almost never negotiable. Most review committees are happy to rule out an application that is missing a letter, even if the letter writer had a legitimate excuse. Please allow yourself adequate time to get the letter in before the deadline. Also, it is important to clarify requirements for the type of deadline (e.g. deadlines such as "letters must be postmarked by ..." are rare these days) and the format (hard copy versus electronic) at the outset. If you are unsure about any of the deadline details, ask the student or contact the office of postgraduate fellowships.
As always, if you have any questions about letters of recommendation, please contact me (Maggie Tongue, director of the office of postgraduate fellowships, at x 8311 or firstname.lastname@example.org) and I will be happy to assist you.