How To Write a Letter of Recommendation for Graduate School Applicants

If you've been asked to write a letter of recommendation for a graduate school applicant, the prospect of getting started might first appear somewhat daunting. Striking a balance between "honest" and "helpful," while wondering about things like how much detail to put in about how you know the person, or how to focus on those strengths without seeming overly ebullient, can be a difficult task.

Here are some tips for writing those letters of recommendation:

  1. Talk to the applicant. This is especially important if you have worked with him or her in only a limited capacity, as you may not be aware of all that he or she has accomplished. Ask for items from the list below to give you a better idea of what to include in the letter.
    • The applicant’s grade point average, plus any academic awards or honor societies to which he or she belongs.
    • Any courses the applicant has taken or research papers that the applicant has written that are relevant to the topic.
    • Any work experience or volunteer activities that are relevant to the topic.
    • A description of the applicant’s professional goals
    • Copies of any admissions essays the applicant has had to write for the admissions process.
  2. Gather anecdotes. An effective application letter is highly detailed and contains examples of the applicant’s positive traits. It’s important to illustrate how the school or program will benefit by admitting the applicant.
  3. Organize the content. Even a letter of recommendation should follow the standard letter writing procedure, with an opening - body - closing structure, with the addition of a recommendation at the end. Take a minute to understand each of these components and what you have to say in each of them.
    • Opening: Explain who you are, and how you know the applicant. Discuss your acquaintance with the applicant and give the relevant information in one paragraph. How do you know the applicant? Is your relationship centered around work or school or volunteerism, or a combination of these? How long have you known the applicant?
    • Body: Discuss the applicant's strengths here, in two paragraphs. In the first paragraph, list a few of his or her areas of expertise or particular skill or maturity (e.g. The applicant's organizational skills, ability to creatively problem-solving, grasp of the importance of deadlines, the applicant's intelligence, creativity, the ability to deal with complex matters, and appropriateness for field of study). Keep this paragraph succinct and to the point. (Remember: U.S. federal law prohibits you from including commentary on gender, race, color, age, religion, marital status, physical or mental disability, national origin, sexual orientation, medical condition, citizenship, or political affiliations, beliefs or activities.)

      In the second paragraph, choose one skill or trait of the applicant's on which to focus that is particularly noteworthy - for example: "Of all John's abilities and strengths, perhaps his greatest is his ability to analyze complex issues without losing his focus." Then, go on to give one or two concrete examples of how the applicant has demonstrated that trait or ability in the past. Keep your anecdotes brief. Focus on the applicant's choices or skills, and how those choices and skills led to a good result. Use the anecdotes to help show how the applicant would be a good candidate for the graduate school.

    • Closing: Sum up the letter by restating and drawing the reader's attention to the applicant's goals. Link the traits and abilities to the intended course of study. For instance, for an applicant applying for a law degree: "In short, Jane has demonstrated the quick thinking and critical analysis skills necessary to become an outstanding attorney."
    • Your recommendation: The last sentence of the closing should give your recommendation. Be specific about to what extent you would recommend the applicant.

      Below is a shortened sample letter that’s formatted in the correct way:

      "Dear sirs,

      My name is John Q. Public, and I highly recommend Jane Doe as a candidate for graduate school. During my tenure as Associate Director, Name College, I have interacted with Jane as her professor during her time as a student at Name College over the past four years.”

      Jane is able to form strong connections with people of all ages, especially the "at-risk" children she worked with at Specialty Hill School. Jane has a special talent for working with students who need additional guidance and support than those typically received in traditional classrooms. She excels at teaching simple and more advanced concepts, and has excellent written and verbal communication skills. Jane is extremely organized, motivated, and reliable.”

      While she was a student at Name College, Jane was employed in several positions involving children, including teaching a museum program to fourth grade classes in the Nearby School District, teaching adults and children to play volleyball, and managing volleyball and softball equipment for a local park district. She accomplished all of this with initiative and a positive attitude.”

      Jane would be a tremendous asset to your program, and I recommend her to you without reservation. If you have any further questions with regard to her background or qualifications, please contact me at the number listed on this letterhead.”

  4. Pay attention to formatting and grammar. Use official letterhead and always type a letter of recommendation. Ensure that you have left appropriate margins, spelled all of the words correctly, and have made no grammatical errors or poor syntax choices. Double-check the request for the letter to make certain you have properly addressed the purpose of the letter, and to clarify whether the letter should be given to the applicant or mailed separately. Follow the rules "to the letter" to avoid problems later.
  5. When to say no. If you have reservations about writing a letter of recommendation - for instance, if you would recommend the applicant only conditionally, or not at all, or feel neutral about the applicant - or if you lack enough information to make an informed judgment, then ask yourself whether you really are the best person for this job. Because these letters are usually positive, recommendation letters to graduate programs that are neutral about a candidate are often seen as negative letters. It’s better to be honest, as it’s your professional name on the line if the applicant isn’t a good fit for the program. If this is the case, give serious thought to asking the applicant to seek someone else's assistance, rather than derailing the applicant's future plan by coming off too lukewarm or apathetic.

Now that you can write recommendation letters for school, you may also want to learn how to write a letter of recommendation for job applicants.


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