Writing Letters of Recommendation
Many undergraduates ask their GSIs for letters of recommendation. Undergraduates sometimes feel more comfortable approaching a GSI than they would a faculty member. Furthermore, GSIs for large lecture courses often have more individual contact with undergraduates than faculty members do, and thus are often in a better position to write a detailed letter of recommendation. So, how do you write a good letter of recommendation?
First, decide if you are the best person to write the letter. A letter of recommendation from a faculty member will carry more weight than a letter from a GSI. However, GSIs often know students better than faculty members do and may be able to write a more detailed, and thus more useful, letter. One solution may be for the GSI to write the letter and have it co-signed by the faculty member.
Ask the student what motivated him or her to ask you. Also ask if there are others who might be asked. Sometimes a student may be shy to ask someone else, and you can reassure the student or encourage the student to ask a professor.
Also, decide whether you can honestly recommend the student. If not, suggest that he or she consider asking another person. For example, if you feel that you cannot honestly recommend the student, or you feel that you cannot do so wholeheartedly, you may wish to suggest to the student that someone else might be in a better position to write the recommendation letter.
Discuss with the student the institution, program, or field of study to which he or she is applying. This will help you to decide whether you can recommend the student and give you a greater sense of what to include in or exclude from the letter. Your letter should point out how the student’s particular strengths fit well with the chosen discipline.
Ask the student for a list of materials that must be completed by you, together with a list of the due dates and websites or addresses to which the materials must be submitted. If the student is applying to more than one institution, ask for all the relevant materials for different institutions in different envelopes or folders. Check that the student has signed any relevant waivers or other forms. In addition, if the materials are to be delivered through regular mail, check that the student has provided a stamped, addressed envelope in which to place each completed recommendation.
Request copies of papers or exams that the student has submitted in your course to help you recall the details of their work. It is extremely important to give specific examples to back up your more general claims. This is easier to do if you have copies of past work in front of you when you are writing the letter. It is also helpful to check the grade records, if they are available, for many recommendation forms ask you to state the student’s position in the class (for example, in the top 5%, 10%, etc.).
Letters of recommendation differ; however, most good letters of recommendation need at least three paragraphs containing the following types of information. In many disciplines, the letter should spill over onto a second page, if possible. (However, it is a good idea to ask the student if there are conventions or application guidelines to be aware of; some programs may require a single page recommendation letter, for instance.)
Identify yourself and the student. Explain your affiliation, the capacity in which you have come to know the student, and for how long you have known him or her. Include course names as well as course numbers. State what grades the student earned in your course and mention how you would rank the student in relation to other students whom you have known in the past. For example, did the student submit the best paper on nuclear disarmament that you have read in the last ten years? Did she excel at a particular activity or fall in the top 2% of students that you have taught in some specific respect?
Discuss the student’s strengths and weaknesses. Be sure to give concrete examples to back up more general statements. Specificity is very important in a letter of recommendation. Make detailed reference to specific projects or activities in which the student participated, or specific work that was produced. You should discuss some or all of the following:
- Intellectual ability (overall intelligence, analytical skills, creativity, academic record, retention of information)
- Knowledge of area of specialty (depth and breadth of knowledge, use and knowledge of methodology, experience)
- Communication skills (writing skills, oral articulateness)
- Personal qualities (industry, self-discipline, motivation, maturity, initiative, flexibility, leadership qualities, team working skills, perseverance, energy, competitiveness)
- Suitability for graduate study or profession
- Conclude by recommending the student based on his or her performance in your class and on personal strengths and weaknesses
When working on a letter of recommendation for a student, bear in mind both practices that are helpful and ones that are unhelpful.
- Do be specific. Mention examples of the student’s work, projects completed, activities, and so forth. If your memory is not clear, either ask the student to give you some work samples or suggest the student ask someone else who knows him or her better to write the letter.
- Do be objective. Report examples, events, and so forth, as much as possible. If you want to attest to a student’s interpersonal skills, discuss how you observed the student’s interactions with others, rather than merely state what a “nice person” she or he is.
- Do be both honest and positive. If you have negative things to say, ask the student to find another letter writer. Obviously, saying negative things about a student’s performance will have serious consequences on the student’s chances at the job, scholarship, or acceptance being sought. Remember that your experience with the student may not be typical, so the student should find only someone who can say positive things. In addition, writing negative things can potentially affect you as well, if there is ever any doubt about the reliability of your judgment with respect to the student.
- Do be neat, type the letter, and check spelling and grammar. A letter that contains spelling or grammatical errors, or is sloppily presented, may not carry as much weight as one that is professionally presented and well-written.
- Do sign the letter in ink (if applicable).
- Do supply contact information such as your name, title, institution, mailing address, email address, and telephone number.
- Do be aware of potential ambiguities and words with negative connotations. Also, be aware that what you omit to mention may be seen as just as important as what you do mention.
- Don’t use bland words such as nice, fairly, satisfactory, good. If you cannot honestly recommend the student more strongly, suggest that she or he ask someone else to write the letter.
- Don’t refer to characteristics such as race or nationality, ethnicity, gender, religion, age, appearance, disability, marital status, etc., which could be construed as discriminatory. For example, don’t say things such as, “John did very well in my class despite his obvious disabilities….”
The sample letter linked below is formatted for use on University letterhead. Some institutions to which your students apply now have online forms for recommendation letters. In that case, provide the information requested and paste your final letter into the letter area on the form.
Guidelines for Writing Letters of Reference, published by the UC Berkeley Career Center, provides information on writing effective letters of recommendation. It provides guidelines for writing letters intended for academic graduate schools as well as for business, law, and health professional programs.