Letters of Recommendation

Letters of recommendation are written to provide a contextual and independent third-party endorsement for an applicant’s merit of an offer such as an academic admission or a job. The writers of recommendation letters should gather enough information and allow sufficient time to write convincingly and thoroughly about the applicant’s qualifications. This resource provides tips on how to write effective recommendation letters. The resource also lays out tips for students and professionals on how to establish and maintain professional relationships with potential recommendation letter writers. The tips provided for students are tailored towards undergraduate students seeking admission into graduate school.  

Tips for the applicants

Whether you are a student or a working professional, it is possible to predict who your potential recommendation letter writer would be if you were to apply for a new position. Letters of recommendation for academic admissions are generally written by educators who know the applicant in an academic context. If you are working, your supervisors or previous bosses will likely be your best letter writers. In either case, the most important tip is to establish early, productive, and professional relationships with potential letter writers.

For students

  • Get to know your professors early on, especially those who teach the major courses in your field of study. After one of your first class meetings, stay after class and introduce yourself to the professor if he or she has time to talk to you. Tell him or her what you like about the class. Professors like and remembers those students who are most interested in the classes they teach.  
  • During your bachelor’s study, pay more attention to the classes that you like the most; it is likely that your interests in graduate school will align with those classes. For example, if you like chemistry, you will be more likely to succeed in your chemistry classes. In that case, be sure to establish constant interactions with your chemistry professor. Visit them during their office hours and let them know that you like their class. Tell them specifically what you like about the class, and share with them your graduate school aspirations.
  • Be proactive and seek more interactions with professors who teach you hands-on laboratory classes. Your agility in hands-on laboratory exercises provides the professor with more insights that they can use to prove your strengths in a letter of recommendation.  
  • If a professor does research, ask if he or she can set up a research project for you to work on under their supervision. If none of your favorite professors does research, ask them if they can refer you to a different campus, institute, or laboratory where you can gain hands-on research experience. If you plan to apply for a research-based graduate program, a recommendation letter from a research supervisor is of indispensable, and sometimes, necessary value.
  • If you identify a professor as your potential letter writer, work harder to succeed in their class. If you succeed in a class, the professor of that class will know you as a strong student, and that is what they will say in your recommendation letter. Try to meet with your favorite professors on a regular and one-on-one basis so they can know you more. If you set up a meeting with a professor, be punctual, persistent, and prepared. Punctuality and preparedness show your good character, which the professor will mention if he or she writes a letter of recommendation for you.
  • Seek recommendation letters from professors who taught you courses or trained in research that is related to the graduate program you wish to apply to. For instance, even if you excelled in a history class, it may be unwise to seek a recommendation letter from a history professor when you are applying for graduate school in physics.
  • If you have the option, waive your right to see the recommendation letters written on your behalf. Your professor or educator will write your letter more freely and more earnestly if they know that you will not read it.
  • Communicate to your letter writers early and clearly. Provide them with sufficient information for them to know which schools and programs you are applying to. Consider meeting with them or emailing them to provide them with your curriculum vitae and more information that will allow them to write a strong letter about you.

For working professionals

  • If you are a working professional, the following tips can help you establish and maintain professional and productive relationships with your supervisor, in which case they will write you a compelling letter of recommendation, should you need one:
  • If you are an employee in a typical professional setting, you probably hold a rank in a well-defined hierarchy. Know and respect the hierarchy; report to your supervisors as expected. Respect your supervisors but be confident in your own rank. If you are a supervisor in any capacity, respect your supervisees the same way you respect your own supervisors.
  • Be proactive and productive at your job. Know and complete your job assignments, and be creative beyond your duties but within the context and the objectives of your company/employer.  
  • Be punctual and stay your whole shift unless you have a prior excuse. Employees paint a negative image of themselves when they leave their office early or do not show up for work without prior excuse. If you have to miss work or be late, inform your supervisor early.
  • Practice clear and timely communication with your supervisor and with your co-workers.
  • If you work in a team, be a reliable and approachable team member. Know and respect your co-workers, and respect the job rules and guidelines. Keep your work interactions and relationships professional.  
  • Make sure you interact with your supervisor constantly, but avoid seeking unnecessary assistance from him or her. It is in your best interest if your supervisor knows you as an independent, competent, and productive employee.  
  • If you have the option, waive your right to see the recommendation letters written on your behalf. Your supervisor will write your letter more freely and more earnestly if they know that you will not read it.
  • If you need a recommendation letter, let your supervisor know early so they have enough time to write the letter.

Tips for the letter writers

Academic recommenders (professors, educators)

If, as a professor or educator, you are requested to write a letter of recommendation for your student, we advise to consider the following before you write the letter:

Qualification: When a student asks you to write a recommendation letter for him or her, make sure you are the right candidate to write an effective letter for the student. Do you know the student enough to write positively and specifically about the student’s skills as they relate to the requirements of the program he or she is applying to? Have you known and interacted with the student enough to provide a credible statement about the student’s strengths? Did you teach or interact with the student in the context of the graduate field they are pursuing?

Time: An excellent recommendation letter can set an applicant above of several other applicants with similar qualifications. Before you commit to writing a recommendation letter, make sure you have time to write a thorough one.

Get to know the student: If you are qualified and you have time to write a letter for the student, get to know the student and the requirements of the program they are applying to. Before you write the letter, it might be helpful to read the student’s curriculum vitae or discuss his or her academic accomplishments, goals, as well as the requirements of the program he or she is applying to. Ask them why they chose the university and the program they are applying to. Knowing the student will provide you with specific examples of his or her accomplishments to put in the recommendation letter, while knowing the school of his or her choice will help you tailor his or her accomplishments to the requirements of the school.

If you cannot write a recommendation letter for a student, decline his or her request, and if possible, propose other potential recommenders to the student. If you are the applicant’s main or only recommender, please allocate enough time to garner necessary information and write an efficient recommendation letter.  

The content of a recommendation letter

A recommendation letter should contain sufficient, detailed, and specific information that illustrates the student’s strengths as an applicant to a given academic program. You should, therefore, include in your letter specific examples that show the context, the places, and the activities or exercises through which you witnessed the student’s intelligence and skills. Write specifically and personally about the student, and avoid grandiose and unproven praises. Consider including the following information in student recommendation letters:

In the opening of the letter: State how and for how long you have known the student, the context in which you know the student (a student in your class, your research mentee, an intern in your laboratory or company, . . . ), and why you are writing the letter. Your recommendation letter becomes more impactful if you have known the student for a significant period of time and interacted with him or her directly.  

In the body of the letter: Provide specific and detailed examples to evidence the skills of the student. Choose a few examples of your encounters with the student and use them to illustrate that you know the student well. Show how those examples prove the students qualities, and tailor the student’s qualities to the requirements of the school they are applying to. For example, if the student is applying to a research-based graduate program, consider describing their qualities such as independent thinking, passion for research, organizational skills, and so forth. Do not simply mention what qualities the student has; use a specific example to prove the qualities. You could, for example,  prove that the student is an independent thinker by mentioning how he or she quickly grasped the details of a research project you gave him or her, and how he or she used those details to develop and test new hypotheses.

Use the body part of the letter to also portray the personal characteristics of the student, which you think will benefit him or her in the school they are applying to. Always use detailed examples to describe the student’s individual characteristics. For example, you could mention that the student has an approachable personality because he or she got along well with everybody when he or she was working in you laboratory or in a study group that you supervised. Describe how the student’s experiences have helped them  grow personally and academically. Always use specific examples, names of places, titles of classes and research projects, and such. Only mention examples that you can prove. For instance, do not simply mention that a student is the smartest you have ever taught unless you can prove his or her scholastic ability with concrete examples. By all means, avoid unearned or generalized praises of the student as these could make a letter of recommendation look less unique and less credible.

In the conclusion: Summarize the main points of the letter emphasizing how the student’s strengths make him or her a competent and promising candidate for the school or the program. If you have included sensitive information in the letter, invite the program or the school to reach out to you should they need additional information.

The format of a recommendation letter

If there are specific format guidelines to follow (for example, set by the school the student is applying to), adhere to them as much as possible. Such guidelines might include length, content, deadline, and more. Ask the student or the school if there are such guidelines.

Avoid ambiguous and hyperbolic language.

Use simple writing style.

Proofread the letter and correct any typos or errors.

For more information about letters of recommendation and how to write them, please see the sources cited below. If you have information and resources about letters of recommendation that we did not include in this document, please consider sharing the information and resources with us at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., so we can share it with everybody. You can also sign in or sign up at afrisnet.org and share the information as a public post or a blog on your profile page.

Sources Consulted:

https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/982/02/

https://career.sites.clemson.edu/documents/faculty_writing_guidelines.pdf

https://www.e-education.psu.edu/writingrecommendationlettersonline/node/141

https://career.berkeley.edu/Letter/LetterGuidelines