Writing Winning Recommendation Letters

It is spring, that wonderful time of year when many award nominations are due, and many chemical professionals are asked to write supporting letters.  While you want to help your colleagues, you may not know how to write a compelling letter.  There is an art to writing a great letter of recommendation, and a few simple steps can ensure that you write the strongest letter possible.


When you are asked to write a letter for someone else, consider the request before you accept.  Do you know this person well enough to do them justice?  Do you respect them, and their work, enough that you are eager to tie your reputation to theirs?  Do you have time to craft a compelling letter before the deadline?  Only if you can enthusiastically accept should you agree.


Start by collecting the necessary background information.  Ask for a resume or CV of your subject, the requirements and judging criteria for the award, and the requested document type. (Is there a form?  Do they require a letter of a certain length?)

Look through past emails and other communications from the candidate, annual performance reports, and other documents that will spark your memory and help you remember specific projects and activities that you worked on together.

In many cases the nomination needs to be kept secret from the nominee, but their LinkedIn profile, spouse, or other colleagues can be valuable sources.


Start writing your letter.  Begin by describing how you know the candidate, and for how long.  Describe how they meet the award criteria, making sure to include specific examples.  Don’t just write “Steve is a team player”, but provide details of the time Steve took the tasks no one else wanted, and completed them on time and under budget to allow the team to succeed.

There is no need to repeat dates and facts from elsewhere in the application package.  The reviewers want to get to know the candidate as a person, and are looking for a sense of who they are and how they fulfill the qualifications for the award.

Make sure that you follow the formatting specifications exactly, or the candidate’s application may be rejected on technicality.


If possible, coordinate with others who are also writing supporting documents.  Make sure you don’t duplicate coverage, but instead complement each other and describe different aspects of the candidate.


As with any important document, after you think it’s done put it aside and let it sit for a couple days, or at least overnight.  Read it over again, and make sure it flows.  Confirm that you have addressed all, or at least all that you can, of the award criteria.  Send a hard copy in plenty of time to make the deadline, and let the nominator know you have done so.

It is an honor, and an obligation, to be asked to write a letter of recommendation for a colleague.  If you respect and admire the candidate enough to agree, you owe it to them write the strongest, most compelling letter you can.

Get Involved In The Discussion. The ACS Career Tips column is published the first week of every month in C&EN. Post your comments, follow the discussion, and suggest topics for future columns in the Career Development section of the ACS Careers blog (acscareers.wordpress.com)._—Brought to you by ACS Careers

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