- It explains how the professor knows the student. The professor speaks to the student’s abilities in several contexts (including assistant) rather than just in class.
- It is detailed.
- Statements are supported by specific examples.
- The student is compared to her peers and the letter explains exactly what makes the student stand out.
- Her capacities are described in specific ways rather than simply noting that she is an excellent student prepared for grad school (all letters say that!)
Below is the body of an effective recommendation letter, written by a professor. ~~~
To: Graduate Admissions Committee
It is my pleasure to write on behalf of Jane Student, who is applying to the PhD program in Research Psychology at Major University. I have interacted with Jane in several contexts: as student, as teaching assistant, and as thesis mentee.
I first met Jane in 2008, when she enrolled in my introductory Psychology class. Jane immediately stood out from the crowd, even as a first semester freshman. Just a few months out of high school, Jane demonstrated characteristics commonly held by the best college students. She was attentive in class, prepared, submitted well-written and thoughtful assignments, and participated in meaningful ways, such as by debating other students. Throughout, Jane modeled critical thinking skills. Needless to say, Jane earned one of five A’s awarded in that class of 75 students. Since her first semester in college Jane has enrolled in six of my classes. She demonstrated similar competencies, and her skills grew with each semester. Most striking is her ability to tackle challenging material with enthusiasm and endurance. I teach a required course in Statistics that, as rumor has it, most students dread. Students’ fears of statistics is legendary across institutions, but Jane wasn’t fazed. As usual she was prepared for class, completed all assignments, and attended help sessions conducted by my teaching assistant. My teaching assistant reported that Jane seemed to learn concepts quickly, learning how to solve problems well before the other students. When placed in group work sessions, Jane easily adopted a leadership role, helping her peers learn how to solve problems on their own. It was these competencies that led me to offer Jane a position as teaching assistant for my statistics class.
As teaching assistant, Jane strengthened many of the skills I have articulated. In this position Jane held review sessions and offered out-of-class assistance to students. She also lectured in class several times during the semester. Her first lecture was a bit shaky. She clearly knew the concepts but had difficulty keeping pace with PowerPoint slides. When she abandoned the slides and worked off the blackboard, she improved. She was able to answer students questions and the two that she couldn’t answered she admitted to and said she’d get back to them. As a first lecture, she was very good. Most important to a career in academics, is that she improved in subsequent lectures. Leadership, humility, the ability to see areas in need of improvement, and the willingness to do the work needed to improve – these are all characteristics we value in academia.
Most important to a career in academics is research competence. As I have explained, Jane has an excellent grasp of statistics and other skills critical to a successful career in research, such as tenacity and excellent problem solving and critical thinking skills. As mentor of her senior thesis, I witnessed Jane in her first independent research efforts. Similar to other students, Jane struggled with finding an appropriate topic. Unlike other students, she conducted mini literature reviews on potential topics and discussed her ideas with a sophistication that is unusual for undergraduates. After methodical study, she chose a topic that fits her academic goals. Jane’s project examined [X]. Her project earned a department award, university award, and was presented as a paper at a regional psychology association.
In closing, I believe that Jane student has the capacity to excel at X and in a career as a research psychologist. She is one of a small handful of student that I have encountered I my 16 years teaching undergraduates that has this ability. Please do not hesitate to contact me with further questions.