Tips for Writing Letters of Recommendation


One of the things I like best about teaching is seeing my students succeed and move onto new challenges. When they are in the process of doing that, they often need references and letters of recommendation. I am happy to be asked and want to help. However, when I sit down to write a letter of recommendation and am facing a blank page, I start to wonder where to start. It’s something I didn’t really consider when I asked professors, and managers to write reference letters for me for school and job applications.

Here are some tips I have put together for myself when I need to write a letter of reference:

  • Make sure I know enough about the person and about the job, school, or scholarship the person is applying for. What information is the person who is reading the letter going to want? Does he or she want to know about academic performance? Attendance? Leadership qualities? Extracurricular activities?
  • State that I am recommending them in clear, strong language in the opening paragraph.

“I believe that Jane Doe would be an asset to your company as she has been here.”

  • Introduce myself towards the beginning of the letter-maybe even the first paragraph. The reader should know your relationship to the applicant, how long you have known him or her, and how you are qualified to evaluate the applicant.

“I met Jane Doe when she was a student in my Fall 2012 Chemistry 101 class at Blank College where I am a professor of chemistry.”

“As John Doe’s supervisor, I have worked with him for the last 5 years at Blank Chemical Company.”

  • Explore the reasons why you recommend the applicant in the following paragraphs. Try to give concrete examples of the applicant performing well to support your recommendation.

“John has strong leadership qualities. As part of the Chemistry Club, he organized a volunteer tutoring program for chemistry students.”

  • Compare the applicant to his or her peers. Where does her grade fall compared to the rest of the class? How did his performance review stack up among other chemists in the department?

“Jane has consistently exceeded our expectations for level 2 chemists in each of her performance reviews, making her one of our top chemists in the company.”

  • I like to finish the letter by once again recommending the applicant and briefly restating the reasons.

“John is one of the top students in his class who has shown himself to be a leader through his volunteer work.”

  • Most importantly, I make sure to know the deadline for the letter and to meet it!

Being able to assist people when they are moving onto the next stage of their lives-starting new jobs or starting a new school program-is a great feeling. It’s exciting to see people changing jobs or even careers, transferring to a new school or program, or going back to school. It’s even better when you have a plan on how to write the letter.

This article was written by Sara Stellfox. After working in contract and pharmaceutical laboratories, Sara changed her career path and is now a free lance writer and chemistry instructor at the City Colleges of Chicago.

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4 Responses to Tips for Writing Letters of Recommendation

  1. Peter Wentzell says:

    I agree with these comments, but I also think that students need to be given some instructions on how to ask for a letter of recommendation, since it is something they are all likely to do. Too often, I don’t think they recognize the importance of this request and expect us to pull something out of thin air. These are some suggestions.

    Provide the referee with complete information- name, address, deadline, as well as all information pertaining to the qualifications.

    Provide the referee with an up-to-date CV, and highlight qualifications for the position.

    Thank the referee for the effort on your behalf.

    I have even asked students to write their own letter, which I then edit. This is a great exercise in self-assessment and helps them to see how difficult it is to write such letter.

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  3. trailcamguy says:

    Excellent and timely tips for writing recommendation letters. Lots of high school students are asking for letters of recommendation to submit with their college applications.

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