Letters of recommendation are a crucial part of graduate school applications and can easily be a deciding factor for committees in accepting or rejecting an applicant. The purpose of the recommendation letter is to endorse the applicant; therefore, the letter must be lucid, well-structured, and specific.
The Makings of a Good Grad School Recommendation Letter
Structuring Your Letter
A recommendation letter that is not well-structured is a detriment to an application and diminishes the credibility of the recommender. The structure of the recommendation letter should be similar to an essay’s. It should include an introduction, one to three body paragraphs, and a conclusion. Generally, the recommendation letter should not be longer than one page.
The introduction should start with a statement of purpose. This statement should include something along the lines of, “I am writing to you in support of [applicant’s name here]’s application.” From there, you can summarize two or three of their strong traits to be referenced later in the topic sentence(s) of the body paragraph(s).
If you have known the applicant for a long time and can think of many qualities that you would like to endorse, you may want to use two or three paragraphs. If there are one or two positive trait(s) that you would prefer to highlight, you may use just one paragraph. Do not assume that the more qualities you list, the stronger your letter will be. Pick a few strong attributes that you can back up with good evidence. A body paragraph must begin with a topic sentence that introduces the positive attribute that you intend to write about. The rest of the paragraph should be dedicated to supporting evidence (one or two sentences) and introspection (two or three sentences).
This is the “so what?” section. Explain how the mentioned characteristics are valuable in a potential applicant. Conclude the letter by affirming your own positive impression of the applicant and your belief in his or her potential to succeed.
Coming Up With Content
It is useful to start by creating a list of the applicant’s strongest attributes. It often helps to have the applicant complete a self-assessment. Have the applicant write his or her three strongest qualities and three weakest qualities. By no means should you use this as your only resource; this is meant only to help trigger your memory. Keep in mind that colleges are seeking driven, goal-oriented, hard-working, involved, and impactful applicants.
After you come up with positive traits that you are willing to endorse, supply one or two sentences of supporting evidence for each trait. Give concrete examples of instances where the applicant exhibited these traits.
Be careful not to be vague. Avoid words like “always” or “good at.”
Hyperbolic praise of your applicants will come off as disingenuous. Instead, let you applicants’ accomplishments and qualities speak for themselves in your writing. Did the applicant show outstanding talent, work ethic, or passion? Use anecdotal evidence that reflect these qualities. Even if the applicant displayed his or her strengths on numerous occasions, only a few are necessary to back up your claim.
Once you cite examples that support your topic sentence, you must include analysis. In a recommendation letter, you must write about how the applicant’s positive traits will enable him or her to be successful with his or her career and academic ambitions. This is the most important part of the recommendation letter. Your goal is to make the applicant’s qualities seem as valuable as possible to the university.
In a Nutshell:
- Make sure you that dedicate a lot of time to this letter and submit it on time. An applicant is asking you to contribute to their application to the school of their dreams. If you do not have the time to write the letter, allow them to find someone else who does. Most graduate school programs will not consider the application process to be complete until recommenders submit their letters.
- Show, don’t tell. Use examples to back up your claims.
- Be specific.
- Be resourceful. Ask the applicant for a self-assessment. You can also use online feedback resources (such as Prompt) to ensure that you submit the best possible recommendation.
- Even the most articulate and positive recommendation letter can be dismissed for an egregious spelling error. You do not want to submit anything that will ruin your credibility.
- Write a recommendation letter on behalf of an applicant whose qualities you do not want to endorse. Some recommenders do this because they do not want to hurt the applicant’s feelings. The result is a poor recommendation letter and damage to the recommender’s own reputation.
- Be vague. This often comes across as a subtle hint at the applicant’s inadequacies. Be specific.
- Be generic. Do not say about the applicant what you might say about every applicant. If you can copy and paste your recommendation letters to fit many applicants, you are not strongly endorsing the student. Remember that admissions officers read hundreds of applications and recommendation letters—so do not say something that will be found in every other letter.
- This might be obvious, but you do not want to lie or even exaggerate in a letter of recommendation. If a lie is discovered by officials (remember that some schools have an interview process and ask for a personal essay), it will damage both your own and the applicant’s reputation. If you have trouble coming up with good recommendation material, consult the applicant or other professionals who have worked with him or her.
Hopefully this guide will help you to give the applicant an excellent recommendation. To further guide you, we have attached a recommendation letter template for use as a reference.
Recommendation Letter Example:
To Whom It May Concern:
I am writing to you in support of [applicant’s name here]’s application. [Briefly explain your relationship to the applicant and the context in which you have had the opportunity to examine his or her character.] [List his or her positive traits (a), (b), and (c) here.]
[Topic sentence introducing positive trait (a)] [one or two sentences of supporting evidence that includes concrete and specific examples of when the applicant exhibited positive trait (a)] [Introspection on positive trait (a), explaining how this trait will make the candidate an excellent applicant at this university and eventually successful in his or her career.]
[Here, repeat the above formula for trait (b)]
[If necessary, spend another paragraph on a third trait (c)]
[This is the conclusion. Now, answer the “so what?” question. Briefly summarize your introspective points and talk about the applicant’s potential and his or her capabilities.] [Finally, reiterate your support of the applicant’s application.]