Writing Effective Recommendations

Writing recommendations that may determine a student's future is an awesome responsibility. These tips should help recommenders in meeting that responsibility.

Before you begin: Information and logistics

It is extremely important that you feel comfortable about writing a supportive (not simply perfunctory) letter. If you do not feel that you know a student well enough to write a specific recommendation - or if you have any reservations - tell them so. It may be that some other instructor is a better choice. If you agree to write a letter of support, be sure you are prepared:

  • Know what is being applied for (a copy of a fellowship announcement, a catalog description of the graduate program, the job description).
  • Have a copy of the student's resume and transcript.
  • Know the deadline for the letter.

Fellowships, competition, and professional schools will reject students whose files are not complete within the time prescribed. Give yourself enough leeway, and be sure to let the student know when you have mailed and/or emailed the recommendation.

Consider the audience to whom you are writing. What criteria will be applied in the selection process? The information you give in your letter should vary depending upon the nature of the opportunity being applied for. Students applying to graduate school will be judged most on their ability to complete rigorous academic assignments; their character and social skills will be secondary. Professional schools sometimes emphasize non-academic experiences: business schools may be interested in work experience and leadership skills; law schools may stress communication skills and ethical awareness; and employers often want evidence of job-related aptitudes, reliability, interpersonal skills, potential for supervisory positions, and a tolerance of frustration. High grades are frequently less important than these other considerations.

If you are one of a number of people writing to support a student's application for a prestigious fellowship, check with your colleagues to make sure you do not use precisely the same anecdotes or references to the same extracurricular activities.

Three-fold purpose

Letters of recommendation do three things on behalf of the applicant:

  • Provide information (facts).
  • Render judgments (evaluations).
  • Offer distinctions (unique qualities).

Components of an effective letter

Identify your qualifications for writing about a student: "As Joe's advisor for three years and his instructor in two upper-level courses. . ." A brief comment about yourself is especially appropriate when you have special expertise in the position being applied for: "As a Baptist minister myself, I am particularly pleased that George is applying to your divinity school."

It is essential to be clear about the facts that support your favorable judgment of an individual. Specific information can substantiate a favorable judgment much more effectively than generalities can. An example of the latter might be: "Joe Smith has shown himself to be an alert, sensitive, and intelligent student. He is a fine candidate for medical school." This comment would be much stronger if the instructor had given evidence for his judgment: "Joe Smith has a profound understanding - perhaps even an innate sense - of the biochemical basis of human physiology, as evidenced by the scores he earned on his exams and labs in our introductory physiology course. In fact, his final average (a 99.8 percent) was the highest ever recorded in the fifteen years I have taught the course at Smith University. This predicts enormous success for Joe in medical school."

Watch out for unsupported adjectives such as "intelligent," "reliable," "efficient," "thoughtful," "responsible," "sensitive," "imaginative," "personable," and "creative." If you are tempted to use one of these terms, be sure that you give specific facts to back it up.

If you notice a problem area in a student's background (lack of extracurricular activities because the student has had to work, shifting major emphases, lack of a specific course), and if there is a reason that can be adduced to explain this deficiency, be sure to include it in your comments. Avoid gratuitously pointing out a student's weaknesses. Such comments rarely, if ever, make a recommendation appear more "objective," which is often the recommender's rationale for providing an unsolicited criticism of the applicant. See below for how to deal with a solicited remark concerning a candidate's weaknesses.

Recommenders will often be asked to rate a student on a scale or grading system. Be alert to the stated or implied criteria that are being used. If you say that Sue Jones is one of your best students in the past ten years, then be sure to indicate best in what: Promise? Performance? Grade? Depth? Energy? See below for how to respond to forms that require checkmarks.

Sometimes recommenders are asked to identify a student’s weaknesses or limitations. If you intend to mention a negative factor, be sure that you tell the student for whom you are writing that you plan to do so. Sometimes, however, you can respond to the "negative" question in a positive way. Civil service forms often ask for the candidate's weakness. Indicating that a student works better within a group than in a totally independent setting or that he/she is more practical than theoretical may be a helpful “weakness.”

Bringing students to life on paper so that they will be remembered after the sorting process is very important. Frequently, a specific anecdote can be quite helpful: “When twelve local children became lost on campus, Jane gathered them up, gently inquired where they lived, and arranged rides for them, preventing what could have been a very scary situation for the kids and their parents.” Another option, if appropriate, is to note hardships that the candidate has overcome: “Even though Jenny elected to return home during the middle of the spring term of her junior year to help nurse her mother through extensive chemotherapy, she was able to complete all her courses, earning As in all but one of them.” The more specific your comments, the more likely the superlative student will stand out in an equally strong applicant pool.

When you write about humanities majors, be sure to include an analysis of their writing ability. The student’s communication skills are particularly important if he/she is applying to a business position.

Letters should avoid vague platitudes that are really evasions in disguise: “Betty is not a traditional leader, but instead leads by example." (Translation: Betty hasn’t demonstrated any leadership.) Or: “Don completed his assignments on time." (Translation: next application.)

If the student has become your friend or if you consider him/her to be a colleague (in either case, this is usually after the student has graduated), indicate that relationship (and the reasons for it) in your letter.

Format

Your letter should be readable and it should be long enough (at least a page; some people believe that the two-page letter is doubly effective). The salutation should be specific, although a "To Whom it May Concern" or "Letter in Support of Law School application of John R. Jones" is usually acceptable.

If you are faced with a form that needs checkmarks, and if you feel comfortable with this format, fine. If you prefer writing a letter, be sure to staple it to the form with a note indicating your preference for answering in a narrative format. Be sure to keep a copy of all letters, even if a student establishes a placement file.

Beware of phrases that are a part of Furman's vocabulary. For instance, "CLP" must be spelled out and explained. Obviously, you should not refer to courses exclusively by numerical designation.

Confidentiality

The question of confidentiality is a knotty one. Students may waive their right to see a letter because they believe that the writer and readers of such letters will take them more seriously. Whatever the case, it is probably better to share the letters you write about students with them, even if they have waived this right. They may learn from your comments and you will have the opportunity to indicate that—if circumstances are appropriate—you would be willing to write again. If you hesitate in showing a letter to a student because you have not been able to write a supportive recommendation, you should strongly consider asking the student to select another recommender to take your place.

These guidelines have been adapted from two sources: Harvard University and The Harry S. Truman Scholarship Foundation.

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