How To Write a Graduate School Recommendation Letter

Teachers and employers are often asked by prospective grad students to write letters of recommendation. For many, this is standard business and "old hat". But if you're about to write your first recommendation letter for one of your students who is applying to graduate school, you might want to consider a few basics of good letter writing.  If you know that you will have numerous requests for graduate school recommendation letters, you may want to check out the Recommendation Letter Toolkit for ideas and templates.

To write a recommendation letter:

  1. Follow the guidelines. There are different types of recommendation letters. Some require you to write everything yourself, others require you only to check some boxes and make some comments. Whichever type of letter your student presents you with, be sure to follow the guidelines included. This also means sending the letter as directed - returning it to the student or mailing it to the school, and having it completed by the deadline. Your student will, hopefully, give you plenty of time to complete the letter and provide you with all the information you need to write him or her a great grad school recommendation letter.
  2. Ask for a cheat sheet if needed. There are always those students or employees we know well - the ones we advise or supervise on a daily basis. Writing a letter for those people is simple - you know the facts off the top of your head. But when a student you had several semesters ago or when an employee you hired then hardly worked with asks you for a recommendation, you may need to do some reviewing. Don't hesitate to ask a student for a "cheat sheet" - be it a resume, a course and grade list, or a list of job details. That will allow you to write a more specific letter. Speaking of which...
  3. Be Specific. An admissions committee wants to know what you think of the candidate's potential as well as his or her past achievement. By calling up specific items the candidate has accomplished, you will not only help the candidate "look good" in a concrete way, but you will make it clear to the admissions committee that you know the candidate. This will lend your opinion some measure of credibility that a generic letter would not.
  4. Be concise. A letter of recommendation need not be a complete biography of the candidate. Try to keep the letter short and to the point, hitting on specifics that relate to the student's abilities both as a student and within the field of study. Of course, there is also room for things like praise of character and work ethic, which are also relevant and can be included. However, keep your letter to one page unless there is some special circumstance that you need to explain. Short and sweet is best.
  5. Be positive. In general, teachers want their students to do well. Even if we don't feel compelled to give the most glowing reference to a student, we usually still say yes because, well, it's our job to help them and we want to give them assistance as they try to take their education to the next level. If you are asked to write a letter of recommendation for someone who is not the best all time student, try to emphasize the positive elements in an honest way. Unless specifically asked, there's no need to bring up the negative. It's a recommendation, not an evaluation.


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