When asked to write a letter of recommendation…

Your graduate students are applying for jobs right around now, and your undergraduates will be submitting their graduate school applications in January or February.  It’s likely you have received some requests to write recommendation letters in support of those applications. Inspired by a ProfHacker article that defines five principles for writing effective letters, below is a roadmap for you, and a parallel checklist you can give your students, for them to use as a guide.

Should you accept?

  • Only accept to write a letter of recommendation if you can write a positive and enthusiastic letter.
  • Politely decline if you can’t write anything other than a boilerplate letter.
  • Politely decline if you don’t know the student enough to be specific.
  • If you are an adjunct, you should let your student know that a letter from a permanent member of the faculty might carry more weight.

What should you request from your student?

You could give your student a copy of this checklist for students, but you might prefer customizing the list to meet your needs. Here are the kinds of things you might ask your students to provide to you, to help you write a good letter:

  • a current CV or resume
  • a cover letter
  • a draft of their statement of purpose or goals
  • the year(s) or semester(s) they have known you
  • the grades received in your class(es)
  • noteworthy assignments and feedback provided
  • a list of  strengths as demonstrated in your class(es)
  • a description of the academic qualities that are most relevant in support of the application
  • a description of non-academic qualities that are most relevant in support of the application
  • the reasons for applying to a particular program or institution
  • complete and precise instructions for addressing and sending the letter(s)

What should you write?

  • Only write about what you know directly about the student.
  • State how and how long you have known the student.
  • Think of all the different ways you got to know the student (blogs or discussion boards, in-class discussions, meetings during office hours, assignments, papers, presentations, interactions with other students, etc.), and zoom in on what makes the student a singular and unique individual and a worthy applicant.
  • Consider ranking or comparing the student to others you have had.
  • Talk about the student’s potential relative to the program they’re applying for.

Wait, this is a “tech tip”… what technology might help the process?

We haven’t found a good recommendation letter generator (the technology for this has existed for a while!), so we won’t get into the ethics of using such a thing. But computers are good at making certain tasks more efficient.

You probably receive more requests to submit letters of recommendations electronically than on paper. Consider using electronic letterhead, to avoid printing and subsequently scanning your letters: it’s both time and energy efficient. You can make your own electronic letterhead, or find out if someone in your department has already done this. Different versions of the Queens College logo are available here (requires MyQC login).

You probably also receive requests from students who are applying to many schools, and keeping track of the multiple letters can be a headache.  Consider asking your students to use Interfolio to manage the letters they request. They sign up for an account (the annual cost to them is currently $19) and arrange for Interfolio to send you a request for your letter. You receive that request through an email that prompts you to login to Interfolio or set up an account. (Recommenders don’t pay to use the system). You can upload your letter electronically, or you can send it by snail mail if you prefer. The website even has instructions for how to add an electronic signature to your document. Then Interfolio sends your letter to the various programs your student has chosen. You upload your letter once, and the website takes care of the rest. An additional feature of Interfolio is that it keeps an archive of the letters you submit, so you can consult past letters or at the very least keep a running count of how many letters you’re writing.

Additional links:

The Pros and Cons of Writing Letters of Recommendation (ProfHacker blog, The Chronicle of Higher Education)

The Big List of Brain-Jogging Adjectives & Phrases for writing recommendation letters (Rutgers Prep College Counseling Team)

Letter of Recommendation: How to Ask For It (Peterson’s)

Interfolio (Credentials service website)

Need help with the Commons? Visit our
help page
Send us a message