Writing Strong Letters of Recommendation
Collaborate with the Candidate
- Meet with candidate and make sure to get their resume, unofficial transcript, and application essay drafts.
- Require information about what they are applying for and/or evaluation criteria.
- Interview the candidate, asking them to discuss personal objectives, both short- and long-term, a discussion that could well reveal alternate or additional pursuits for the candidate to consider.
- Find out who else is recommending the candidate and reflect on how your letter will complement others’.
Use Material Specific to This Student and for This Purpose
- Know your audience and purpose – what criteria must a candidate meet to be considered for selection?
- Keep your focus on the candidate, not your course, research, or work, while providing a context for your knowledge of the candidate.
- Provide details about the candidate’s achievements and their goals/intentions, for the intended program and long-term; “quantify” when appropriate (as in “__ is the most prolific undergraduate scholar I have mentored in 24 years at the University of Missouri, having authored or co-authored 12 articles before her senior year”)
- Endorse the candidate’s commitment to service and prospects for leadership/distinction in their chosen field.
- Revise and edit (don’t be bashful about seeking assistance from colleagues).
- Never take a request for a letter of recommendation lightly. If you are approached to write a letter and cannot in good conscience support the candidate, it is better to say no than to submit a half-hearted letter; another individual may have good reason to endorse the candidate’s application.
- Balance praise with carefully stated criticism if appropriate.
- Comment beyond your field of expertise as you are comfortable, especially by describing transferable skills. Is the candidate:
- A leader?
- Committed to serving the common good?
- Willing to take on challenges?
- An effective communicator (in speech and writing)?
- Creative in solving problems?
- Ethical in their decision-making?
- Try to demonstrate that the candidate is a doer and accomplishes what they set out to achieve, connecting those accomplishments to the purpose of the program, and if possible, the criteria for evaluation.
- Employ specific terms of praise that demonstrate performance.