Writing Student Recommendation Letters
Professor Joe Schall, Giles Writer-in-Residence and Writing Tutor at Penn State University, has written extensively about recommendation letters. His book Writing Recommendation Letters: A Faculty Handbook is freely available online here.
Schall offers 10 ideas for writing effective letters of recommendation:*
1. Say “no” based on the circumstances and devote your energy to other letters you should be writing.
2. Be mindful of content and style that can unintentionally undermine you or the student.
3. Create boilerplate contextual information that you can re-use in multiple letters. You might include some of the following in your boilerplate paragraph:
- The foundations of education at MyUniversity.
- Specific details about the reputation of your program, the level of work done in your lab, or the nature of students who major in your program, etc.
- The content of a course that you teach, course objectives, number and nature of projects, etc.
- A brief relevant summary of your background—both personal and professional.
4. For recommending a student who will work outside of your field, consider the value of transferable skills, such as
- Analytical thinking
- Problem solving ability
- Work ethic
- Communication and presentation skills
- Ability to work as a team member
- Success in overcoming obstacles
5. When recommending a student for a national scholarship, match your evaluation to specifics of the scholarship criteria, for example:
- The Udall Scholarship expects students to be concerned about environmental public policy.
- The NSF Fellowship considers the value and efficacy of a student’s research project.
- The Fulbright Scholarship expects the student to have a maturity of character for successful study abroad.
- The Rhodes Scholarship and Marshall Scholarship selectors desire a “British level of evaluative candor” from letter writers.
6. When praising, choose specific superlatives tied to examples demonstrating performance rather than generics such as “excellent,” “great,” or “outstanding.”
Intellect Work Ethic Temperament Vigor
imaginative precise good-natured active
insightful persistent likeable energetic
intelligent resolute considerate self-starting
discerning serious affable enthusiastic
knowledgeable committed patient vigorous
original orderly tolerant pace-setting
analytical prompt composed eager
far-sighted efficient restrained diligent
logical responsible earnest zealous
skilled persevering bold fast
astute sure gregarious productive
adaptable alert polished enterprising
resourceful businesslike adventurous certain
self-reliant thorough team-oriented speedy
thoughtful confident spirited self-driving
judicious tenacious sociable independent
perceptive hard-working open ambitious
inquisitive methodical frank on-the-ball
bright determined assured industrious
7. When offering praise, use narrative technique and show the student in action. Effective narrative praise:
- puts us “in the moment” with the student
- avoids hyperbole and cliché
- is tied to specifics about the student
- is linked directly to appropriate evaluative criteria
- doesn’t reach inappropriately beyond the scope of the writer’s experience
8. Be willing to offer credible, even-handed criticism in the right circumstances, and create context for the criticism.
9. Partner with the student on the process and establish protocol.
10. Study models, read and write articles on the subject, educate yourself on national scholarships, and re-evaluate your own practices.
*Excerpts from a presentation by Joe Schall at the University of Mississippi, 2012.