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Career Assets

Writing a Compelling Recommendation Letter

 

Amy Clark, Associate Editor

December 2020


Writing recommendation letters is a common and necessary part of any academic’s job. If you are a professor, research lab manager, or thesis advisor, you may find yourself writing 10–20 recommendation letters a year for graduate students and postdoctoral researchers who are applying for teaching positions and fellowships. The task can be challenging and time-consuming, but also rewarding. The letter provides a meaningful opportunity to reflect on an individual’s development in your department and to support that person in the next steps of their career.

What makes a good recommendation letter?

The best recommendation letters are detailed and nuanced. Use your first-hand knowledge of the applicant to convey why they would be an excellent fit for the position or fellowship. The most successful letters describe the applicant’s strengths and achievements, but they also enable the recipient to get to know the applicant as a person by relating stories that demonstrate the applicant’s traits and accomplishments. The tone of the letter is straightforward and collegial, showing strong support and genuine enthusiasm for the applicant without overly praising.

What is the typical format of a recommendation letter?

Good recommendation letters are typically one and a half to two single-spaced pages. Use your institution’s letterhead and address the letter to the chair of the search or fellowship committee by name (if provided by the applicant) or address the letter to the committee itself. Close the letter with your signature and your full title or titles.

How should I prepare to write a recommendation letter?

Engage the applicant in helping you prepare to write the letter, if possible. Depending on the opportunity they are applying for, you might ask them to supply any of the following items: curriculum vitae, transcripts, their application essay, statement of purpose, and self-assessment of their traits, skills, and accomplishments. Spend some time jotting down your initial thoughts and memories of the applicant. You could also gather comments from colleagues who have taught or supervised the applicant as well as from the applicant’s research peers. You might also read a few recommendation letters to familiarize yourself with the genre and to take note of techniques used in the letters that you find most appealing.

Recommendation letter template

Engage the applicant in helping you prepare to write the letter, if possible. Depending on the opportunity they are applying for, you might ask them to supply any of the following items: curriculum vitae, transcripts, their application essay, statement of purpose, and self-assessment of their traits, skills, and accomplishments. Spend some time jotting down your initial thoughts and memories of the applicant. You could also gather comments from colleagues who have taught or supervised the applicant as well as from the applicant’s research peers. You might also read a few recommendation letters to familiarize yourself with the genre and to take note of techniques used in the letters that you find most appealing.

The template provided below offers a framework for your recommendation letter. Use it as a scaffolding and build out each paragraph according to the given individual, purpose, and audience. The suggested paragraph topics could be rearranged, added to, or deleted as appropriate for each applicant and purpose.

Be sure to use your institutional letterhead.

[Current date]

[Recipient’s name or Committee name]
[Recipient’s institutional address]

Dear [Recipient’s name, such as Dr. X X, or Members of the X Committee]:

Paragraph 1. Introduction. State your purpose for writing and explain your relationship to the applicant.
Use the applicant’s full name (and title if they have a PhD) at your first mention and subsequently refer to the applicant by first name. Provide a one- or two-sentence overall description of the applicant.
Example first sentences:
It is my pleasure to recommend [Dr. Applicant’s first and last name] for [the position of X, or admission to X, or the X fellowship] at [name of institution].
I am writing in support of [X X’s] application to/for [X] at [X].
Example middle sentences:
X was a graduate student in my lab, where she/he distinguished herself/himself as a talented researcher and a respected leader.
I came to know X first when she/he was a student in my xx class, and next as her/his doctoral advisor. I would rank X in the top 5% of students I have advised in the past 10 years for her/his intellectual rigor and her/his strong initiative.
Example closing sentences:
I recommend X highly for your careful consideration.
I have no doubt that X would be a strong asset to your program, and I am extremely pleased to recommend her/him.

Paragraph 2. Discuss the applicant’s work in the lab. Do not hesitate to be specific in describing the research question(s), process, and results. What were the applicant’s unique contributions? What challenges and problems did the applicant face and how did they handle them? How did the applicant interact with you and others in the research group? What level of preparedness did the applicant have? Comment on the applicant’s competency with specialized equipment. Evaluate the applicant’s skills in research report writing. In what ways did the applicant really stand out and shine? Relate an anecdote by way of example. You may need more than one paragraph for this topic.

Paragraph 3. Comment on the applicant’s scholarship. How did the applicant conduct themselves in class? What was the applicant’s level of engagement? Is there a memorable in-class or office-hour discussion you had with the applicant? Is there an outstanding paper or project you can comment on? If you have been able to see the applicant develop and grow as a student and researcher, you could describe that development.

Paragraph 4. Discuss the applicant’s activities and accomplishments in the department and in the professional arena. If the applicant was a graduate student instructor, comment on their teaching skills and interaction with students. Did the applicant attend conferences, present poster papers, participate in any competitions, or contribute to journal publications? Describe their role and unique contributions in these areas.

Paragraph 5. If relevant, describe the applicant’s character and qualities using examples from areas outside of the field of study to underscore their potential for the position or fellowship. This could be an area to discuss significant volunteer work or special skills or talents.

Paragraph 6. Evaluate the applicant in relation to other graduate students in the same area. Where does this student rank, and for what strengths and qualities? Also discuss what others say about this applicant; for example, relate the opinions of other professors or the applicant’s peers.

Paragraph 7. Closing. Give a final summation and reiterate your strong recommendation. How does all you have said about the applicant speak to their suitability for the fellowship and their potential to excel?

Sincerely,

[Your signature]

[Your full name]
[Your title, such as Professor of X]


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