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How to Write a Letter of Recommendation That Gets Results

FlourishAnyway is an Industrial/Organizational Psychologist with applied experience in corporate human resources and consulting.

Make sure your letter of recommendation conveys the desired impact with these tips.

Make sure your letter of recommendation conveys the desired impact with these tips.

You Agreed to Write a Recommendation Letter, But Now What?

In the world of scholarships and college admissions, application materials often suffer from the Lake Wobegon effect. (Lake Wobegon is a fictional place where "all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.")

To help differentiate the best from the rest, admissions and awards committees rely on objective evaluations of the applicant's abilities and character. Such assessments are provided by teachers, professors, and others who are familiar with the candidate. This can include supervisors, coaches, community leaders, and volunteer coordinators who have interacted extensively with him or her. This is where you come in!

The selection committee needs your help in evaluating the candidate.  Be accurate and truthful, then let the chips fall where they may.

The selection committee needs your help in evaluating the candidate. Be accurate and truthful, then let the chips fall where they may.

No Pressure: But Letters of Recommendation Are Very Important

Recommenders face a daunting task because nearly all recommendations are positive. Thus, if the candidate you're endorsing is an absolute stand-out, your letter must reflect that. It's essential that you make a solid case for his or her acceptance.

My personal experience is that, particularly with top-tier competitive situations, there are complex scoring schemes in play. Whether an applicant is accepted, waitlisted, or rejected outright may come down to a third decimal place (e.g., .001). Thus, one letter of recommendation—your letter—could be a tie-breaker in the high-stakes admissions game where people's futures are on the line.

How's that for pressure? Now I'm going to help you do a good job.

Competition can be fierce, so lean into it. Understand the applicant's goals and what he or she is applying for.  In a highly competitive environment, one letter of recommendation can swing a decision.  Hey, no pressure.

Competition can be fierce, so lean into it. Understand the applicant's goals and what he or she is applying for. In a highly competitive environment, one letter of recommendation can swing a decision. Hey, no pressure.

Your Role: Provide a Fair and Accurate Assessment

In providing a recommendation, you place your own reputation on the line.

Resist the urge to overstate the candidate's strengths. While it may help them gain entry into a program, it will set them up for eventual failure with unrealistic expectations that they cannot fulfill.

Hyperbole also ruins your credibility. You may need to recommend future candidates for the same program or scholarship.

Your role as a recommender is simply this: Provide the selection committee with the objective information that it needs to make a fully informed decision.

Provide a fair and accurate assessment of the candidate you are evaluating.  Don't be tempted to indulge in hyperbole.  If the candidate truly is outstanding, however, give examples, be specific and don't hold back your praise.

Provide a fair and accurate assessment of the candidate you are evaluating. Don't be tempted to indulge in hyperbole. If the candidate truly is outstanding, however, give examples, be specific and don't hold back your praise.

Communicate clearly and persuasively, providing a fair and accurate assessment of the applicant's

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  • abilities
  • character
  • motivation, and
  • potential for success.

If you believe the candidate to be a true stand-out, then you'll need to be somewhat creative, too, so that your candidate gets the attention he or she deserves. (Someone may have done this for you along the way.) Only you know what is appropriate here, so use your professional judgment.

Your reputation is on the line.  Know when to decline a request for a recommendation.

Your reputation is on the line. Know when to decline a request for a recommendation.

Consider the following before you agree to write a letter of recommendation:

  • Do you know the person well enough?
  • Do you feel comfortable professionally endorsing their application with a supportive letter?
  • Do you have sufficient time to dedicate to this process?

Decline their request if you cannot in good conscience write a supportive letter. For example: "I think you'd be best served if someone else recommended you." If you don't know them well enough or don't have the time to dedicate, decline with an explanation.