As a college professor, many students approach me for letters of recommendation. Writing these letters is one of the most challenging aspects of my job. How do you fit a comprehensive profile and assessment of a student into a 1-2 page letter? How do you ensure that students provide you with all the relevant information that will help you to write the best letter than you can? How do you protect yourself from liability in writing letters of recommendation?
Students tend to be uninformed about their needs and responsibilities in seeking letters of recommendation. Guide students by providing them with a detailed list of what will assist you in writing a letter on their behalf. Many professors create a handout or web page listing the desired information. Here are some suggestions of what information to ask of students:
- Explain the purpose of the letter
- Desired focus of the letter (e.g., discuss my research skills and experiences in your lab, or discuss my responsibilities as a teaching assistant in your class)
- Useful skills (e.g., computer, statistical, or interpersonal skills)
- Related experiences (extracurricular, work experience, clubs, volunteer work)
- Courses taken with the faculty member, with grades and sample work (e.g., term paper)
- Reasons for pursing graduate study
Think About It
Do not immediately agree to write a letter on behalf of a student. Instead, take a little bit of time to think about it and reflect on your experiences with the student.
If you don't know a student well or cannot write a positive letter on his or her behalf, explain your reservations to inform the applicant. If he or she insists, you can either refuse, write a neutral letter, or include negative evaluations with supporting behavioral examples.
Obtain the student's written permission (the signed recommendation form included in admissions packets for most graduate programs is suitable)
Use specific examples to support your statements. Specific examples will enhance the value of positive comments and will protect you from legal action. If you choose to include unfavorable information, you must include specific examples to illustrate your point.
Organize the Letter
An effective letter of recommendation is structured. Begin your letter by indicating for whom you are writing, what they are applying to, and an overview of the tone of the letter. Indicate to what extent and length of time you have known the student. Your next step should be to review grades and your records regarding the student. Next, provide specific examples that illustrate the student's intellectual ability, capacity for independent and original thought, knowledge of the field, or attitude and motivation. Close by reiterating your overall recommendation and its strength.
Beware of Ambiguity
Letters of recommendation tend to be overwhelmingly positive. Because most letters are inflated, readers examine them as if they were written in code. Recommendation letters thus become a projective test wherein any ambiguity is questioned. Any equivocal information might be interpreted in a negative light, even if you did not intend so.