References and recommendations are an essential aspect of students taking their first steps as professionals. A great reference can make or break getting a good job and impact their career trajectory and earning capacity for their entire lifetime. This is especially critical for women, people of color, and any underrepresented groups. As faculty, you become some of the best references and recommendation writers. A reference typically means agreeing to share your contact information and be called or emailed with a reference request that you can respond to in a timely manner - responding right away is key in the job search process.
A letter of recommendation is “expert testimony” to a student’s ability to perform a task: contributing to a team project, succeeding in graduate school, or learning from a particular experience (such as foreign study/travel). You need to be confident of the applicant’s ability to be able to write convincingly. You could put your professional credibility at risk if you consistently write letters for applicants who are not qualified.
Recommendation Letters for Graduate School Applicants
For graduate school, there is a kind of “code” for levels of confidence. Letter writers use these phrases at the beginning or end of the letter to express their professional evaluation. Generally speaking, there are four levels of confidence as suggested by graduate school forms themselves:
- Strongly recommend – You are very confident in the applicant’s ability
- Recommend – You are confident in the applicant’s ability
- Recommend with reservations – You are somewhat confident, but have specific areas of doubt (include an explanation)
- Do not recommend – You do not believe in the applicant’s ability to succeed (include an explanation)
Tips for Successful Recommendation Letters
A letter of recommendation succeeds on the same merits as any form of persuasive writing: good vocabulary, solid essay structure, appropriate content, and relevant details.
- Vocabulary – use strong, vivid language in both nouns and verbs
- Essay Structure – Structure the letter as a four-to-five-paragraph essay with a thesis
- The first paragraph should state how long the writer has known the applicant, in what context, and a general “thesis” statement regarding the applicant’s abilities/suitability for the position.
- The main body should provide two or three examples of qualities that inspire confidence (or lack of confidence) in the applicant’s skills or character.
- Conclude with an explicit level of recommendation (strongly/highly, recommend, recommend with reservations [must provide explanation], do not recommend [must provide explanation]).
- Appropriate Content – Avoid exaggeration or speculation outside of your knowledge base
- Details – Include a few well-chosen examples of why you recommend this individual. The examples should be obvious within your sphere of knowledge
- Be aware of your own biases and your language regarding the student. The following resources provide things to keep in mind:
Format of Recommendation Letters
These are official documents and should be written using the following professional/business format:
- On professional or organizational letterhead; Appropriate addressing
- Block flush-left paragraphs; Appropriate greetings and closings
- 11 pt. font; One to two pages long