Writing letters of recommendation and its relationship to teaching
Writing letters of recommendation is a skill that will be of great importance throughout your teaching career, and perhaps should be viewed as an almost integral part of your teaching experience. Students in your sections or tutorials who have had a positive experience - in terms of what they have learned, or the work they have produced - are likely to come to you for a letter of recommendation. Indeed, an abundance of requests can be taken as an indication that you are a good teacher and have an ability to establish a rapport with your students. In our view, good letter writers deserve considerable recognition for the contribution that they make. (If you have written a large number of letters, you might even consider making a note of that when asked by a potential hiring department about your teaching skills and responsibilities.)
The contents of a letter of recommendation
l. In simplest terms, a letter of recommendation is a letter that makes a statement of support for a candidate. If, after doing a careful review of a candidate's strengths and weaknesses, you cannot write a supportive letter, it is important to have a candid discussion with the student.
2. Beyond that simple definition, a letter of recommendation should also present a well documented evaluation, providing sufficient evidence and information to help a selection committee in making its decision.
3. A letter of recommendation should also address the specific purpose for which it is written. For most applications, a letter of recommendation will need to discuss both scholarly capabilities and personal character - although the balance between the two will vary, depending upon the nature of the application. For example, at one end of the scale, a letter for an applicant for graduate study in the arts and sciences should focus primarily on the scholarly, while at the other end, a letter for an applicant for a non-academic position should discuss a broader range of qualities and experiences - including extracurricular or work experience as well. As a further example of matching a letter with its purpose, a letter for an applicant for a fellowship with a specific project should discuss the validity and feasibility of the project, as well as the candidate's qualifications for fulfilling the project. The letter should pay close attention to the language of the fellowship announcement.
4. A letter of recommendation can also be used to explain some weakness or ambiguity in a student's record. If appropriate - and probably after consulting the student - you might wish to mention a family illness, financial hardship, or other factor.
5. For the content of a well-documented letter, the following are further suggestions (see also the samples in the final section):
a. You should promptly identify yourself and the basis of your knowledge of the student: Were you a Teaching Fellow in a tutorial or small seminar for department concentrators? How often did it meet, how many students? how many papers? Do you also know the student through some other capacity? Has your acquaintance been sustained over a number of years? Writing the letter on department letterhead is a further form of identification.
b. In evaluating a student's intellectual capabilities, try to describe the student in terms that reflect that student's distinctive or individual strengths. Whatever strengths strike you as particularly salient, be prepared to back up your judgement with concrete examples - papers, exams, class presentations, or performance in a laboratory. Above all, avoid the misconception that the more superlatives that you use, the stronger the letter. Heavy use of stock phrases or cliches in general is unhelpful. Your letter can only be effective if it contains substantive information about the student's qualifications.
c. Ranking the student may be requested or desired by selection committees. Having concentrated on the student's individual or unique strengths, you might find it difficult to do so. Ranking is of course less of a problem if a student is unambiguously among the top five or ten percent that you have taught, or so outstanding that he or she would safely rank high in any group. Many of the students who come to you for a letter, however, will not fall within that small unambiguous group. If you wish to offer some comparative perspective, you might be more readily able to do so in more specific areas: Is the student one of the most articulate? original? clear-thinking? motivated? intellectually curious? Some schools or fellowships have forms which ask for rankings broken down into specific areas. If you lack sufficient information to answer some questions posed or suggested in an application, it is best to maintain the integrity and credibility of your letter, and say only what you are in a position to say.
d. In discussing a student's character, proceed in a similar fashion to the intellectual evaluation, highlighting individual traits and providing concrete illustrations.
e. After discussing each of the above points, your letter should have some brief summation, giving the main thrust of your recommendation for the candidate.
How to acquire sufficient information to write an effective letter
Meeting with the Student
Even if you know a student very well, the process of writing an effective letter can be greatly facilitated if you arrange to have an interview with the student, using this as an opportunity to discuss the student's goals - short-term and long - and to acquire more precise information in any area where it is needed.
Obtaining Written Materials
As you arrange a meeting with a student, you should also ask the student to bring the following items:
1) a resume or curriculum vitae,
2) a paper or an exam written for your course,
3) a copy of the application essay or fellowship statement of purpose
4) a transcript
5) any literature that describes the fellowship or program for which the student is applying; specific recommendation forms or questionnaires if they are provided for the letter writer to complete
6) the date on which the recommendation is due, as well as the address - preferably an addressed envelope to which it must be sent
7) a waiver form indicating whether or not the student waives his or her right to see the letter of recommendation. If the student has any questions about this decision, you might point out that there are important benefits in maintaining the confidentiality of letters. Selection committees, for example, tend to view confidential letters as having greater credibility and assign them greater weight; also, some letter writers actually feel less inhibited in their praise of students in confidential letters. While making these points, be sure to make it clear that it is up to the student to decide.
One other factor that greatly facilitates letter writing is if you can write a letter as soon as possible after you have taught a student, while your impressions are still vivid and fresh. You might consider encouraging students to make their requests early, rather than waiting until senior year or beyond. These early letters can be placed in the students' Career Center files, as well as maintained in your own files for future reference.
Further refinements: handling the easiest case, the in-between case, and the most difficult case
The written materials listed above and a discussion with the student will greatly benefit the letter writing process - and indeed, the application process - although in each case it will benefit in a different way. The following are possible scenarios:
The easiest case: A request is made by a student you know very well, have seen in different settings - classroom and outside the classroom - and whose performance and conduct you find to be consistently outstanding. In this case, you can use the discussion and written materials not only to further refine your own presentation of the student, but to help the student refine the application - and especially the application essay. Many students find it difficult to talk about themselves - even the most articulate. By drawing the student out, asking for further elaboration or more specific details, you can help bring into sharper focus such items as past accomplishments, future plans, or why the student is making this particular application.
The in-between case: A request is made by a student who has made some favorable impression, but you lack considerable information to write a well-documented letter. The benefits of the interview and acquiring written materials are most obvious in this instance. In addition to allowing you to do all of the above, they will allow you to fill in gaps in your knowledge and to gain a clearer view of the candidate. It is particularly helpful for students who tend to be somewhat shy or quiet in class. What you may not have learned about the student in the classroom, you may be able to learn through a discussion that specifically addresses matters that you need to know.
The most difficult case: A request is made by a student who has made no impression, or only a negative impression. In this case, it is extremely important to be both candid and helpful at the same time. One of the things a discussion can accomplish is to give the student a thorough hearing before you decide whether or not you can provide support. If you still find that there is little that you can say in support, you might help the student to identify a more appropriate letter writer, and also explore whether the student is making an appropriate application.
Such a discussion offers an important teaching and advising opportunity - one that may be sorely needed. The student who comes to you for a letter that you cannot write may have a similar problem with other instructors. It is important to discuss with the student how he or she might improve prospects for the future. Above all, it is important to avoid allowing the student to believe that all opportunities have been permanently closed. Try to emphasize the student's potential strengths - perhaps asking the student to share with you a favorite paper or other positive experience that may have occurred outside of your class. The message to convey is that there are constructive steps to be taken, and that if the student has gained a clearer understanding of his or her strengths and weaknesses, then this marks an important first step.
Questions of format and style, co-signed letters
In some applications, the format is determined by the application itself: the recommender is asked to answer a series of questions. If a form does not allow you to say everything that you would like to say, it is appropriate to attach additional remarks. Indeed, it is common practice to attach a full letter of recommendation to a form, in addition to responding to questions on the form.
Furthermore, if a form asks for information that you cannot provide, it is best to say so.
The following are further considerations:
l. The length of a letter: If you follow the above guide-lines, your letter probably will be somewhere between one and two pages. Anything longer than three pages is counterproductive, since readers normally have a quantity of letters to read. On the other hand, anything shorter than a page may imply a lack of interest or knowledge about the student.
2. The care with which you write the letter: This will also influence the effectiveness of the letter. Writing in your best polished prose style is another way of registering your support for the student.
3. Writing the letter on a word-processor: If possible, do so, and be sure to save the file. Once you have been asked by a student to write a letter, that student may return again and again, over a number of years, for additional letters. A word-processor allows you to adapt and up-date an original letter with considerable ease. It is a way of protecting your initial investment in time and effort.
4. To whom to address the letter: If a student is applying to similar programs in a number of different schools, your letter can be left virtually unchanged for each application. In this case, addressing the letter "To whom it may concern" will facilitate this multiple use. This is also useful if a student is simply asking for a letter for his or her Career Center file, in anticipation of eventual applications. In the case of letters for specific fellowships, each letter should address the appropriate fellowship committee, and make any other adjustments in the letter that may be necessary.
5. It should be noted that in some cases, letters of recommendation are submitted to a campus representative, rather than sent directly to a selection committee. The Fulbright Grant is one example; medical schools also require an intermediary, or a composite letter from a Dean. These variations are steps taken after you have produced your letter, and need not affect the process we describe in this guide for writing letters. One other possibility is that the student requests a letter of recommendation in anticipation of future applications. The advantage of this early request is that you are asked to write while you still have the student's performance freshly in mind and can write a more vivid letter. Be sure that the student fully informs you as to the purpose and destination of your letter.
6. The issue of gender: In the past, it was common for letter writers to make distinctions in the way they described women versus men. Descriptions often paid greater attention to the personal lives or personal characteristics of women than men, focusing on items that had little proper place or relevance in a letter of recommendation. While this problem has greatly improved, it is still important to remain sensitive to this issue.
Letter Of Recommendation For Graduate School, Sample #1:
[sender’s departmental address—if not printed on letterhead]
[sender’s departmental phone number, if available]
[sender’s departmental fax number—if not printed on letterhead]
[sender’s institutional email address]
[recipient’s institutional address]
Dear [recipient’s name]: or To Whom it May Concern:
It is my pleasure to recommend Jane Doe for admission to [name of program] at [name of university]. I am a fifth-year Ph.D. student at the University of California, Berkeley. I came to know Jane when I was her Graduate Student Instructor for Philosophy 111: Ethical Relativism, taught by Professor John Smith. The course comprised [short description of course]. Jane distinguished herself by submitting an exceptionally
well researched and interesting project on ethical practices in ancient Greece. I would rank her in the top 2% of students that I have taught in the past five years in respect of her writing ability and research skills.
Overall, Jane is highly intelligent and has good analytical skills. Her project on ethical practices in ancient Greece demonstrated her ability to come a detailed understanding of the ethical practices of another, very different, culture, and to analyze the consequences of those practices for contemporary ethical theories. She
gave a particularly interesting discussion of the difficult practice of infanticide, and showed both sensitivity and detachment when discussing its ethical consequences. Her overall intelligence is also reflected in her grades for the course, which were by far the best in the class.
Jane has excellent communication skills. Her written work is both clear and concise, as well as interesting to read. She demonstrated her oral articulateness in the discussion sections that were an integral part of the course. Each discussion section focused on a particular ethical dilemma. Students were required analyze morally problematic situations, and to develop and argue for their own ethical views with regard to the issue in question. Jane was highly proficient in applying the course material in analyzing the problem situations. She always explained her views very concisely and gave supporting arguments that were both clear and persuasive. Jane also demonstrated good teamwork skills in group assignments.
At a personal level, Jane is a well disciplined, industrious student with a pleasant personality. She went well beyond the course requirements in the quantity and quality of her project, putting in a lot of extra research and attending office hours every week. Throughout the course, Jane demonstrated great perseverance and initiative. Not only was she interested in and motivated to learn the material, but she also put great work into assimilating it to her own experience and developing her own ideas about each ethical
topic that we discussed.
Jane is unquestionably an exceptional candidate for graduate study in Ethics. Jane’s work in Philosophy 111 suggests that she would greatly benefit from the opportunities for intellectual development provided by a sustained period of graduate study. She has proven herself to have the perseverance, initiative, and intellectual creativity necessary to complete an advanced graduate degree. I would therefore highly
recommend Jane Doe. If her performance in my class is a good indication of how she would perform as a graduate student, she would be an extremely positive asset to your program.
If I can be of any further assistance, or provide you with any further information, please do not hesitate to
[sender’s name and title]
Letter Of Recommendation For Graduate School, Sample #2:
December xx, 20xx
To the Review Committee:
I am pleased to write a letter of recommendation for Janet Lerner, an honors undergraduate student in our program. I have known Janet for more than two years. I came to know her very well when she was a student in my economic geography course. This summer, I hired her to work on an NSF-sponsored research project on Human Dimensions of Global Environmental Change. And for the past six months, we have been developing a laboratory manual for my undergraduate course on the global economy. It is on the basis of this extensive experience that I write a letter of unequivocal support.
Janet is an undergraduate student in the honors program at Mythic University. The honors program is designed to provide the educational experience of a small Ivy League college within a large public university. To be accepted, a student must have high SAT scores, be an excellent writer, and have very good high school grades. Students fulfill their course requirements by taking honors courses or by selecting a combination of classes with a heavy emphasis on graduate seminars and independent reading courses. Students must maintain a GPA of 3.2 or better in all courses in order to remain in the honors program. Janet has fulfilled this requirement admirably, maintaining a GPA of 3.8 or better throughout her career. Over the last few years, Janet designed a difficult curriculum for herself and has been very successful in combining graduate seminars and advanced undergraduate reading courses to fulfill her degree requirements. She is comfortable with herself and is well-recognized by her peer group. She, along with her peers from the honors program, will enter the nation’s best graduate schools next year in such varied fields as medicine, law, and other allied social sciences. She seeks to enroll in your graduate planning program.
Janet is an enthusiastic, energetic, and exceptionally well-organized student. She writes beautifully, is widely read, and demonstrates good quantitative skills. In my economic geography course, she was the best student in the class. Her performance exceeded that of the incoming graduate students, including an NSF fellowship recipient. She always came to class prepared and was clearly far above her peers in understanding and appreciating the course material.
I have been especially impressed by Janet’s determination and sparkle. Her work on the Model United Nations program (MUN) is an extremely large responsibility. The Model United Nations program convenes approximately 1000 high school students from around the world to simulate the experience of the UN. Janet has responsibility for designing and executing all phases of the simulation. She reviews the agendas of the UN over the previous year, and then collaboratively develops the student-run assembly agenda. To undertake this task successfully, she must understand international relations, international political economy, and world economic development issues. Her UN work has clearly influenced her interests and has been a very broadening experience for her. I am sure one explanation for why she has done so well in courses with me is that she understands the geography of the global economy from the simulated, yet very real-world perspective of the Model United Nations program.
Concerning her potential as a teaching assistant, Janet has detailed experience in developing educational materials for courses. After many years of dissatisfaction with economic geography texts, I decided I would develop a laboratory manual for my introductory course. Based on Janet’s superior performance in the course I employed her to put the manual together. Although we talked at length about the project and I gave her broad outlines for each segment, nonetheless the lab manual is very much her creation. It is a five-assignment workbook built around a hypothetical scenario in which the student is a staff advisor to a program officer of the Ford Foundation. The assignments require that students complete a thorough analysis of a country, including an economic history, demographic analysis, trade assessment, and policy proposal. The manual is designed such that a student will be able to retrieve the necessary quantitative and cartographic information to complete the projects. Each assignment results in a memo based on a template Janet developed. Janet identified and tested all sources listed in the manual, and this project would not have reached fruition without Janet’s tireless efforts.
I know from discussions with colleagues and graduate students in my department that we all think Janet is a very special student. I have enjoyed getting to know her as a person and find her surprisingly mature for her young age, quite capable of working entirely on her own in a self-directed manner. I am pleased that Janet is planning to enroll in graduate school starting this fall. I have no doubt that she has the skills, focus, and determination to successfully complete a master’s degree in a timely fashion. I also believe she will seek to complete a Ph.D.
Janet is a rare find. She is well-trained, ambitious, and yet very open-minded and even self-effacing. I believe she will be successful wherever she ends up attending graduate school. She will be a dedicated student and a competent professional.
I recommend her very highly and without reservation.
Professor of Geography