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Writing a Letter of Recommendation: Getting Started

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If you work with college students it's just a matter of time before you are asked to write a letter of recommendation on behalf of one more more students. Understand what is being asked of you when a student requests a letter.

What to Ask
Before agreeing to write on a student's behalf, ask a few questions. What is the letter for? What does the student expect from you? Carefully consider whether you feel that you can write a positive letter. If you feel that you cannot wholeheartedly recommend the student, it's your ethical responsibility to inform him or her that you’re not the right person for the job.

Get What You Need
The next step is for you to request the material you need to write an effective letter. What information will support your argument regarding the student's capacities for graduate-level work? Request the following from the student:

  • resume or vitae
  • transcript
  • admissions essay
  • detailed list of accomplishments
  • overview of career goals and how education fits with those goals
  • list of contacts you've had with the student (courses, projects, etc.)
  • copies of papers or projects submitted to you

Before You Write
Before you begin writing your letter read the application materials for each graduate program. Get a feel for what the selection committee is looking for and target your letter accordingly.

Think about the student. What has he or she accomplished? Provide details. How did the student do it? Tell a story about the student and his or her accomplishments. Compare the student with others you've known. Throughout the letter, provide examples illustrating the student's qualifications.

Potential Topics to Cover Include:

  • student's potential
  • student's goals
  • research skills
  • contributions to class discussions
  • interpersonal skills
  • leadership ability
  • extracurricular activity
  • scholarship

Finally, a good letter addresses any weaknesses in the application and follows up with a discussion of strengths. When a student asks for a letter of recommendation, think carefully about what you're about to undertake. It's a big responsibility, but one with many rewards.

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