How to Write a Letter of Recommendation That Gets Results
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!
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.
Your Recommendation Makes a Difference
Particularly in top-tier competitive situations, 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.
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.
Communicate clearly and persuasively, providing a fair and accurate assessment of the applicant's
- 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.
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.
What Information Do You Need?
If you fill out the recommendation form that the applicant provides you—without asking any questions—then you're taking the easy way out. It's also less effective. You'll be tempted to do this and just be done with it, but stop. Expect more out of yourself and the candidate whose future you are investing in.
Know the Candidate, the Selection Criteria, and the Application Context
Students seek written endorsements for a variety of purposes:
- to study abroad
- to earn scholarships or fellowships
- to secure internships and employment and
- to gain admittance to college, graduate, law, or medical school.
You'll need to meet with the applicant to gather information about the program or award he or she is applying for and learn more about his/her goals. By understanding the context of the candidate's request, you can better address the needs of both the selection committee and the applicant.
Materials to Ask For
Ask the candidate to supply the following relevant documents so that you can thoroughly understand the criteria for selection and build a case for how he or she fits those criteria:
- the program or scholarship brochure
- the job description or job announcement (e.g., for an internship)
- a bullet-pointed list ("talking points") of his or her most important assets and why he or she believes s/he is qualified. Tell the applicant that it's not the time to be modest.
- the applicant's resume and/or transcript and
- any additional materials you believe may be helpful (e.g., the applicant's statement of interest, application essay).
After reviewing and discussing this information with the candidate, you should have a clear sense of the following:
- what he or she wants to achieve with his/her application
- Two or three key strengths that you have actually observed in the candidate
- the decision criteria (so you know what to emphasize most in your letter).
What to Include in a Letter of Recommendation
Who You Are
Who Candidate Is
A brief description of why you are qualified to evaluate the applicant ("As an AP Chemistry teacher for 12 years, I have taught the course to over 600 students ... ")
The candidate's name and why you're writing the letter of support (e.g., the scholarship, award, or program s/he is applying to)
Express confidence in the candidate's future success, and confidently state why you believe this to be true.
An overview of the context and length of your relationship with the applicant
Choose high impact adjectives that fairly and accurately describe the applicant.
Describe your level of support. If you "highly recommend," use that terminology.
Your contact information and an invitation to reach out to you with any questions
Behavioral examples that describe how the candidate has demonstrated his/her most notable strengths
If there are weaknesses, address them responsibly. Including a mild weakness that is the flip side of a strength makes the entire letter seem more plausible.
Your name and position (signature line)
Where possible, quantify the candidate's achievements and your assessment of his or her capabilities (e.g., in the top x% of students you've taught in the past x years)
Don't hold back on emotion or enthusiasm about an applicant. If your candidate merits the level of support, go all in.
Make Your Letter Stand Out From the Crowd
Set your letter apart from the crowd using some of the following tips and tricks.
Tell a story. For each of two or three key strengths, be thorough and specific in explaining how you have seen the applicant display them. Better yet, tell an engaging story.
Stories are personal, persuasive and can incorporate multiple strengths. People find them easy to remember and connect with.
Describe vivid situations which illustrate how the candidate has embodied an important trait. And don't make the story too long.
Here are some considerations to get you thinking:
- What was the situation or task?
- Were there any barriers to success that stumped others but which the candidate overcame?
- What did you observe the candidate do in this situation that made him or her remarkable?
- What were the results achieved, both in the task and how others responded to him/her?
- Is there a moral to this story or a key take away?
Don't go "standard." Another way of making your letter of recommendation truly memorable is to adopt a nonstandard introduction.
Rather than beginning with the standard introduction of who you are and who the student is, consider launching your letter with three bold descriptors of the candidate. For example, "Visionary. Intuitive. Unflappable. No three words better describe John Doe than these. ..." Or, if you're confident enough in a candidate to make a prediction about his or her future, proclaim it in the first sentence. Then back it up with supporting data.
Don't hold back on your enthusiasm or emotion. Match the level of support you feel for an applicant to the tone of your letter. Words have varying degrees of emotional "temperature" that can express
- cautious support
- support, or
- yelling at the top of your lungs jumping-up-and-down support.
Carefully choose your words to reflect your perspective. If the applicant merits yoo-hooing, don't hold back your enthusiasm or emotion. Use words like "phenomenal" or "unstoppable" if they're accurate. Express confidence in his or her future. Truly lean into your recommendation when it's warranted.
Don't Forget the Details
Get the mechanics right: Don't get tripped up by the minor points. Ignoring the following could detract significantly from the overall impact of the letter:
- Indicate "CONFIDENTIAL" on the top of the letter if the student has opted to waive access
- Vary the structure and length of sentences
- Check spelling and word choice
- Avoid heavy use of cliches
- Stick to format or word count requirements, if any
- Use letterhead, and sign in blue or black ink using your title and degree(s)
- Customize each letter for a particular applicant, scholarship, college, etc.—particularly if you write multiple letters for one candidate
- Honor deadlines.
Know the Red Flags for Letters of Recommendation
Letter of Recommendation Red Flag
What It Potentially Says
Recommendation "form letter" that lacks details and examples
The candidate did not merit the recommender's time and effort for a detailed recommendation letter. The recommender doesn't know the candidate well. The candidate isn't a good judge of how others perceive him (else he or she would have selected another recommender).
Brief letter, often with short, choppy sentences. Appears uninspired and not well written.
The recommender is holding back negative information. Or, the candidate made a terrible judgement in asking someone with such poor writing skills to endorse him or her.
Backhanded compliments or descriptions and poor comparisons (e.g., "she ranks in the top half of students I teach.")
The recommender should have declined the student's request but may have felt compelled to write the recommendation.
The over-the-top candidate who's too good to be true—especially if his or her credentials don't back up the claims.
Who wrote this letter? The credibility of the recommender needs to be considered in discounting their glowing endorsement of the candidate.
The recommender and candidate share the same last name.
It's a huge no-no when parents or other family members write recommendation letters for an applicant. It calls into question the social skills of BOTH parties. Just don't do it. If the last name is a coincidence indicate "no relation."
The recommender is low in professional status (e.g., grad student rather than department head).
The candidate may not have impressed people who are more established in their field. Consider a co-signed letter with a faculty member.
The student does NOT waive his right to access the letter under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA).*
A letter that is non-confidential may NOT express the recommender's true and honest opinion.
The recommendation is from a public official who does not know the candidate (e.g., their Senator).
The student is not a strong candidate and must attempt a "Hail Mary pass" by dropping names.
Need Help Describing the Candidate? Here Are 86 Positive Traits
accountable, adaptable, ambitious, analytical, articulate, attentive, balanced, broad-minded, collaborative, clear-thinking, commanding, conscientious, considerate, creative, curious, dauntless, decisive, dedicated, dependable, determined, devoted, diligent, diplomatic, driven, dynamic, earnest, empathic, enterprising, entrepreneurial, enthusiastic, earnest, energetic, even-tempered, flexible, focused, gracious, gutsy, hard-working, imaginative, indefatigable, influential, insightful, inspiring, intuitive, leader, open-minded, organized, passionate, patient, persistent, pioneering, peacemaker, perceptive, persuasive, philanthropic, poised, precise, proactive, prudent, punctual, questioning, quick-witted, rational, receptive, reliable, resilient, resourceful, responsive, self-assured, self-disciplined, self-directed, self-reliant, self-sufficient, sensible, shrewd, straightforward, steadfast, tenacious, thorough, trustworthy, unflappable, unstoppable, versatile, visionary, works well under pressure
Recommendation Letters: Examples of Requirements
Have you ever wondered about letters of recommendation requirements for various organizations? Here are some intriguing examples:
Yale University's undergraduate program requires two recommendations from high school teachers, preferably those who have taught the applicant in academic studies during his or her junior or senior year. One additional recommendation is permitted but not encouraged.
Peace Corps Volunteers must submit two letters of recommendations as a part of their selection process. The letters can be from:
- A current or previous employment supervisor
- A current or previous volunteer work supervisor
- A close friend of two or more years (not a family member or romantic interest).
Acceptance into West Point typically requires a nomination from
- The Vice President
- an applicant's United States Senator or Representative or
- The Secretary of the Army.
Stanford Medical School requires a minimum of three but no more than six letters of recommendation.
To apply for an American Rhodes Scholarship, five to eight letters of recommendation are required. Four letters must be from people who can assess the candidate's academic ability, and at least one letter must speak to their character.
- As a recommender, your role is to provide the selection committee with a fair and accurate assessment of the applicant's abilities and character. By doing so, you can help the committee make a fully informed decision.
- Meet with the applicant to thoroughly understand the selection criteria.
- Build a case for how the applicant fits those criteria.
- Don't just list adjectives and key strengths. Go beyond content you find in the applicant's resume. Explain how you have personally seen the applicant demonstrate his or her strengths.
- Use thorough and specific examples, storytelling, non-standard letter introductions, and enthusiasm as techniques to help you convey the candidate's uniqueness.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
© 2014 FlourishAnyway