Writing a strong letter of recommendation for a good student feels daunting. Use this page to take the stress out of letter writing!
What is a Letter of Rec?
Letters of Recommendation (LoRs) are an opportunity for others to tell a committee about a student from their perspective. It provides a snapshot of the student as a whole person. So, each letter should serve a purpose. Transcripts show quantitative data regarding a student success with traditional academic coursework. LoRs give a qualitative picture of what students are like in class, on a team, or independently.
Materials Needed From Student
Each letter serves its own purpose. Your student has chosen you as a writer for a reason. Make sure that you are meeting the need of the student. Set up a meeting to discuss what they hope you will say. The following pieces of information will be useful to you.
Transcript. If you are commenting on a student's academic success to bolster your letter, this will be necessary.
Resume/CV and Personal Statement. The student's submission materials provide a window into their own hopes for the opportunity. Understanding a student's broader commitments and accomplishments will give you a sense of what is important to them. This shows how the opportunity they are applying for fits within the framework of their whole person, creating a letter that fits the application holistically.
Other writers' names. Each letter serves a purpose. Knowing what other writers will cover allows you to hone your letter to necessary information. Professors may write to the student's class performance. Volunteer coordinators may write to a student's empathy and reliability. Research mentors may speak to a student's intellectual curiosity and problem-solving abilities.
Student's expectations. Ask what the student wants you to say about them. This does not mean that you have to say it, but it does help you decide the overall theme of your letter.
What to Include
Read any rules, tips, or informational guidelines available. Keep your LoR to one page or less, unless otherwise instructed. Try to include the following helpful items:
- How you know the student and length of time give context for your letter.
- Specific stories highlight student qualities and show that you know the student well. Name the good qualities of the student and support them with personal stories.
- Honest opinions, including small areas of improvement, mean that you are being truthful in your estimation of the student.
- Confidence in student's ability to complete a program or follow through on an opportunity.
- Strength of recommendation. It may be helpful to place strong students in comparison with other students.
- Comments or information from others who know the student well.
- Overall, focus on the student and their accomplishments.
- Progression in a student shows a history and insider knowledge. It adds credibility to your letter.
What to avoid
Strong LoRs are succinct, but overly short letters indicate that a writer has little to say about the student. As you decide what to include, try to avoid these things:
- Repurposing a letter from another student - especially if it is for the same opportunity (i.e. a specific graduate program or scholarship).
- Information included elsewhere.
- Over- or under-selling. Honesty is the best policy; committees are suspicious if a student seems too good. A flat letter can also hurt a student's chances.
- Speaking to areas of improvement shows honesty in your letter. Too much criticism, however, can be damaging. Show confidence that these areas are in progress and should not preclude a student's selection.