Do’s and Don’ts of Writing Recommendation Letters

Although the criteria to be addressed varies depending on the opportunity, here are some general tips for writing a recommendation letter.

A successful letter should:

  • Provide a contextual and concrete comparison of the student’s performance. Strong recommendations offer a quantitative comparison for the selection committee, for example, “in the top 3% of students in my 15 years of teaching”; “the student is among the top five I have taught over the last 10 years”;
  • Highlight personalized examples of the student’s work, such as a standout final paper, semester-long research project, etc. Whenever possible, be anecdotal – anecdotes are much more interesting to read;
  • Discuss the merits of the student’s proposed plan or course of research, especially as it relates to the opportunity;
  • Discuss the impact of the fellowship or opportunity on the student’s professional and/or academic trajectory – that is, an explanation of how the fellowship aligns with the student’s future aspirations;
  • And, finally, a strong letter should provide rich and convincing detail. It’s important for the selection committee to see the student as a person and as a candidate in action.

In the same way that specificity is critical to a successful fellowship essay, a detailed and enthusiastic letter will add another dimension to a selection committee’s understanding of the student.

A successful letter should avoid:

  • General language or overly broad descriptors of the student’s performance in the classroom;
  • Focusing on a student’s punctuality or ability to complete the readings. Letters should go far beyond detailing basic expectations;
  • Too much time and attention detailing the relationship with the student or the content of the course. Typically two to three sentences about how you came to know the student and the focus of the course should suffice;
  • Backhanded compliments or faint praise. While honest and constructive criticism may be appropriate in certain circumstances (some selection committees welcome when letter writers discuss potential areas of growth and development), limited page and word counts should be spent highlighting the student’s suitability for the opportunity.

A strong letter of recommendation offers enthusiastic support for the student’s candidacy, building off of their application package and providing unique insight into their capabilities that only faculty can offer. If you feel that you are unable to provide anything short of enthusiastic support, then you can and should say “no” to a student’s request.