Writing Student Recommendation Letters

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
  • Creativity
  • 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.