It’s not uncommon for educators to get regular requests from students for letters of recommendation. However, many educators may not be clear on what such a letter is or what it contains. Here, we’ll explain the definition and purpose of a letter of recommendation. We’ll also explore strategies for writing an effective letter of recommendation, with samples that illustrate what an exemplary letter looks like.

What is a letter of recommendation?

A letter of recommendation is a formal document that validates an individual’s work, skills or academic performance. Letters of recommendation can also be used to vouch for a person’s character. As an educator, the person requesting a letter will most often be a student or former student who is applying for an internship, job, graduate school program, volunteer position or leadership role. 

Letter of recommendation vs. letter of reference

Letters of recommendation are often conflated with letters of reference, but there are important distinctions between them.

  • A letter of recommendation is addressed to a specific individual or group, such as a particular employer or school admissions committee.
  • A letter of reference is addressed more generally, rather than to a particular requestor.

Letters of recommendation and reference differ in their intent and the level of detail they cover. As an educator, you might be asked to write a letter of recommendation to evaluate a student’s performance. This can aid a student in landing a particular job, academic opportunity or award. Typically, the recommender will address this letter to a specific person and deliver it directly to the requestor or addressee rather than the student.

By contrast, reference letters can be addressed more generally, often beginning with “to whom it may concern.” You might write a letter of reference rather than a letter of recommendation for employment, academic advancement and character assessment.

The purpose of letters of recommendation

The general purpose of a letter of recommendation is to share your positive assessments of the applicant. With specific examples from your experience with the applicant, you can offer your detailed opinion of their character assets or performance attributes. Students may request recommendation letters for a variety of reasons, and the specific intent of a particular letter can help you better compose it to explicitly help the student achieve that goal.

Job applications

Employers may require at least one letter of recommendation, along with a resume and cover letter, as part of their application process. A letter of recommendation can give a potential employer more insight into an applicant’s character or work ethic.

  • Is the individual a leader and do they take direction well?
  • Which of the applicant’s personal qualities make them suitable for the role?
  • Does the individual work well in groups?
  • Does the individual take initiative and accountability?
  • Does the individual treat those around them with courtesy and respect?

Further academic endeavors

Admissions officers like to get a broader perspective of each applicant beyond their academic performance and list of accomplishments in their college application. An informative letter from a previous faculty member or employer can offer information that the applicant cannot objectively provide, such as whether they’re a good listener or if they tend to “go that extra mile.” That’s why most college and university programs and internship and scholarship programs require applicants to submit one to two letters of recommendation.

What constitutes a positive letter of recommendation

A positive letter of recommendation focuses on the subject’s attributes. When composing this letter, you’re not trying to demonstrate your ability to provide a balanced perspective on a student’s character and accomplishments. Rather, you’re trying to help a student reach a particular goal.

For that reason, a positive letter of recommendation should highlight the student’s strengths, focusing on what they can add to a team or program.

8 strategies for writing effective letters of recommendation 

1. Provide details

Don’t just give a general, broad assessment of a student’s finer points in your letter. Instead, give specific personalized details about the qualities and attributes that make that student impressive and unique.

All examples provided are quoted from “Writing Recommendation Letters Online – Chapter 5: Sample Recommendation Letters” from Penn State University.

Letter of recommendation sample: “Among his accomplishments, last year Mr. Lerner was the sole recipient of our department’s research fellowships for first-year students, and has selected a project in my group concerning the role of tin doping on the structure, surface chemistry, and nano-indentation behavior of soda-lime silica glass. He began working alongside my graduate students in the fall term, and has been actively engaged in glass batching, melting, fining, and surface preparation for subsequent analyses.”

2. Tell a story

To emphasize a particularly advantageous quality a student possesses, share an example where the student demonstrated that quality exceptionally well.

Letter of recommendation sample: “I know first-hand that Janet performs with aplomb in challenging situations. I was in the Weather Station one day while Janet was conducting a tour for parents and their young daughters. The president of Mythic University happened to be in the group—an intimidating presence to most undergraduates—but Janet handled herself with polished confidence, attending to audience questions about meteorology in a clear, friendly, unaffected manner.”

3. Stick to a consistent structure

Your recommendation is only as good as your letter. A strong letter must look professional to convey credibility. Just as if any student turned in an ill-formatted, haphazardly-written, error-laden assignment, so too will a letter of recommendation composed as such fail to impress.

Here’s a properly formatted letter of recommendation template:

  1. Letterhead: Letters of recommendation composed on an official letterhead offer an added layer of authority.
  2. Contact information: Give the reader your name, address and the best ways to reach you with any follow-up questions.
  3. Direct salutation: Address the specific recipient by name and make sure you spell their name correctly.
  4. Introduction: The body of your letter should start with an introduction to yourself and your position followed by an explanation of how you know the applicant, your relationship with that person and how long you’ve known each other.
  5. Relevant achievements: In the second paragraph, your letter should describe the various achievements and accomplishments of the applicant, as well as your impression of the applicant’s academic, professional or personal strengths as you’ve seen them. (Note that personality traits and a character sketch, distinct from these strengths and achievements, come in the next paragraph.) For extra weight, add one or two examples of specific, detailed situations in which the applicant demonstrated one or more of these strengths.
  6. Personality and character: Here, in the next paragraph, you can delve into the personal strengths and qualities of character you’ve noticed in your acquaintanceship with the candidate.
  7. Call-to-action: In your concluding paragraph, reiterate the purpose and intent of your letter. Summarize your recommendation of the candidate and invite the recipient to contact you if they have any further questions.
  8. Politely close: Write a courteous and formal closing, such as “Best regards” or “Sincerely,” sign your name in addition to printing it and add your title or position below it.

4. Tips for structuring a letter of recommendation properly

Within the structure outlined above, keep the following formatting guidelines in mind:

  • Keep it to one page: This is self-explanatory. But, if you have a lot to say that would genuinely bolster your recommendation, then keep it to two pages.
  • Use a basic font style and a 12-point font: To keep your letter as readable and scannable as possible and to maximize economy of space, avoid using a heavily stylized or hard-to-read font or a font size too large or small to read comfortably. Standard, easy-to-read fonts include Times New Roman, Garamond, Palatino, Helvetica and Arial. If you need to use an 11-point font to fit everything on one page, make sure your paragraphs are short and there’s sufficient white space on the page.
  • Use standard margins and align left: Similarly, use standard margins and paragraph alignment to maintain an organized and professional look throughout your letter of recommendation. That means use 1″ to 1 ½” margins and keep all paragraphs aligned to the left margin. This is particularly important for hard copy letters.

5. Ensure your anecdotes are accurate

Just as you expect of your students, do your due diligence before setting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) to compose your letter of recommendation. For starters, make sure you have the applicant’s name right, including spelling. Then, research the applicant, asking to review their cover letter, resume, personal essay and other relevant application materials. This will remind you of what you already know about the applicant with the relevant details at your fingertips, while perhaps learning new things you didn’t yet know about them. Once you’re clear about what the application materials contain, you can also avoid duplicating that information in your letter. Instead, offer additional reasons why the applicant merits your recommendation.

Letter of recommendation sample: “Through my campus work with the American Red Cross, I have known John Lerner for approximately six months. He introduced himself to me as the co-founder of a new business, Sword of the Round Table (SRT). He spent a great deal of time with me when we first met, explaining how this group could be of service to the American Red Cross.”

6. Use appropriate language

The tone of a letter of recommendation should be formal yet personable. It should demonstrate your credibility by the professionalism with which you’ve written it. At the same time, use positive and enthusiastic—yet sincere and authentic—language to emphasize the seriousness of your recommendation.

Letter of recommendation sample: “Janet is the type of person who loves learning. She’s one of those rare people who work very hard and diligently but does so with a smile on her face. She constantly strives for excellence in meteorology, but Janet does not let her thirst for knowledge rule her life. She is a scientific humanist, with a genuine caring for others. It should come as no surprise that Janet is well-liked and admired by her peers.”

7. Include your signature and contact information

Your signature personalizes your letter and gives it what most people interpret as your official seal of approval. Without it, your letter can feel cold and impersonal, feelings the recipient may well transfer onto the student. Include your contact information so the recipient of the letter can see that you’re available to elaborate on your letter or answer additional questions should they arise. Even if the recipient never contacts you, which will most often be the case, the fact that you’ve empowered them to confirm, validate or expound upon anything you’ve written adds extra weight and credibility to your words.

8. Apply it to the specific situation

Lastly, try to describe how you believe the applicant would excel in the role, program or other situation to which they are applying.

Letter of recommendation sample: “In my opinion, I have never before written a recommendation letter where the candidate and the opportunity were such a perfect fit … Janet informs me that you are seeking a skilled communicator to give tours of your animatronic displays. Even during her sophomore year, Janet was a skilled communicator on the subject of dinosaur paleontology.”

Summary

A positive letter of recommendation helps give the students who’ve impressed you the best chance to further themselves in life and advance closer toward their goals after they leave your classroom. By following a basic template and applying some simple guidelines, you can quickly and easily write an effective positive letter of recommendation.

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