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Writing Recommendation Letters

Most faculty view writing letters of recommendation as part of their professional responsibilities, and indeed, it can be fun to write on behalf of a really stellar student. Admittedly, it can also be difficult and time-consuming.

In the world of nationally-competitive fellowships, these letters are a crucial part of an application.  Since students are competing against the very best in the country, they will need detailed recommendations that attest to their strengths, capacity, potential, and character in order to be successful.

In this section, we give some tips for writing effective letters of recommendation efficiently, including when you might want to say no to a letter request; we introduce a case study we conducted at the University in collaboration with two faculty colleagues, which resulted in concrete recommendations for faculty and for students, and we provide some online resources that can further help with writing letters of recommendation.

The Center for Scholar Development is also available to discuss recommendation letters, review draft letters, or answer questions:

In general, strong letters of recommendation:

  • Are 1-2 pages long.
  • Give some context of how you know the applicant.
  • Make a central claim about a student, then back that up with concrete, detailed, and relevant examples that demonstrate, in as personal and individualized a fashion as you can, exactly how and why you’ve come to think what you do about the student. 
  • Relay anecdotes that show the student in action, doing something, when possible. Anecdotes will put us in the moment, show your knowledge of the student, and are more memorable (and therefore more effective) than generalities.
  • Include some sort of quantitative assessment of the student (e.g. Susie is among the top x% of students I’ve seen in my twenty year career).
  • Discuss why the applicant would be a strong candidate for the specific fellowship. How does this candidate exemplify the personal qualities or selection criteria specified by the fellowship? (If you don’t know what these are, ask the student to provide this info.)
  • Avoid generic superlatives. Instead, try to use descriptors that tie to the student’s performance and help express transferable skills.
  • Are signed, dated, and on institutional letterhead.