Letter of Recommendation

Career Services Information for Faculty & Staff

A student has asked me to write a letter of recommendation. What should I Do?
Are you the right recommender? When the person wanting to be recommended contacts you, do the following: Discuss whether you would be an appropriate person to supply the recommendation. You should do this in as neutral but friendly way as possible. See items "No" and "Yes" for tactics if you think those labels are the answers to the question.

  • No. Often a request for a recommendation is made without considering if the individual's letter would be effective. A common mistake is asking someone too junior: assistant professors should not make recommendations for tenure; usually theorists should not recommend experimentalists, and vice versa; the recommender should be known to at least one of the persons who will be making a judgment based on the recommendation.
    • If you don't qualify as an effective referee, explain why and counsel the individual in finding effective references.
    • If you can't write a positive letter, do not offer yourself as a reference. The discussion topics in the paragraph above may provide a way out. Avoid telling the individual that you can't write a positive letter. After all, your negative opinion may be based on incomplete information. No one needs to be turned down roughly.
    • Do not promise you will write a letter with no intention of doing so. This will only hurt both you and the individual making the request.
  • Yes. To assure your letter will be effective, find out who will read your letter and secure information you need to write an effective letter. Ask the individual to send you the following:
    • Experiences: This should include a complete education and employment history; concise descriptions of research achievement and plans; any awards, honors or fellowship; if relevant, a description of teaching and course development; if relevant, any service on college or national committees; and other contributions such as editing journals.
    • Who will read the letter? You must structure the letter so that it makes arguments that anyone, even a dean or provost, can understand. It should have the four items discussed below.
      • Introduction. Explain in what way(s) you know the individual. Use effective ‘short stories’ that bring the individual alive for readers of the letter.
      • Answer the questions! If the readers asked specific questions, answer them if you can. The trickiest question to answer is to rank the individual against others of similar qualifications. The best institutions will give you a specific list. This question also tests you. You may need to do homework on some of the student’s experiences or skills
      • Evidence for your arguments. Don't say the individual’s work is outstanding; cite specific achievements in direct language.
      • Conclusion. Finally summarize the positive arguments for recommending the candidate.
    • Beware of weak endings. End the letter with the conclusion above. Avoid writing some sentence at the end that mentions even a potential weakness. It will be read as a warning that the real message of the letter is: don't appoint, don't tenure or don't award.
    • Your letter is probably not confidential. Assume your letter will be read by the person being recommended.



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