Writing letters of recommendation for students is one of the most important responsibilities of mentors. Letters show future employers, graduate schools, and grantors that you know the student well and can vouch for their abilities. The recipients are interested in the student's ability to succeed in the future, so you need to use specific examples of the student's work or activities to speak to their fit for the position or program, rather than just list their accomplishments in the past.
Think about the reader of the letter when you are writing it. She has a pile of files (or a list of files on a screen), usually with a student statement, a transcript, and a curriculum vitae. Your letter has the potential to be the most interesting piece she has to read. Instead of just reiterating the obvious, your letter should tell the student's story with your knowledge of the student, what s/he has accomplished, and why s/he would be an interesting and successful addition to their program. Your letter can make the difference between another qualified candidate and YOUR student.
* NOTE: the information provided on this page is based on a poster presented by Bethany Usher (OSCAR & the Center for Teaching and Faculty Excellence), LaNitra Berger (Office of Fellowships), and Kathryn Agoston (Graduate Fellowships) at Mason's 2012 Innovations in Teaching & Learning Conference.
You need as much information as possible from students to write them a great letter. Before writing a letter, ask the student for the following information:
- Clear submission directions (Online? Emailed? Paper?)
- Due date
- Description of position or program
- Student's letter of application or statement of interest
- Student's transcript
- Curriculum vitae or resume
- Written or emailed permission to use personal information and grades in the letter
It is important not to disqualify a student or open the student up to discrimination (or you to accusations that you are discriminating against a student) with your letter:
- Do not ask the student to draft or edit the letter. This is ethically problematic and usually results in ineffective letters. Instead, ask the student for a bulleted list of items to emphasize and/or language you can use in the letter.
- Do not say anything that could open the student up to discrimination or disclose her/his protected status without permission (age, sex, sexual orientation, marital/parental status, disability, national origin, etc.). For example, if the student is applying for a Fulbright in, say, Kuwait, this might not be the place to talk about their courageous coming out story.
- Do not contradict what the student says in her/his proposal. For example, if the student says he expects to defend his dissertation next June, your information should match...or you should have a chat with the student.
It can be hard to say no, but there are times when it's the best answer for you and the student:
- You cannot write a letter that is emphatically positive in its support for the student.
- You do not know the student well enough to speak to her/his ability to succeed in the position or program.
- You feel that the position, award, or program is not a good fit for the student.
- You cannot honestly represent the student as meeting the grant or program requirements (for example, you are asked to confirm that the student is proficient in Swahili, and they are not).
- The student provides inadequate time or insufficient materials.
- Your own circumstances make it unlikely that you can finish the letter by the deadline.
Center for Undergraduate Fellowships & Research (nd). Advice for Writing Letters of Recommendation. George Washington University (http://undergraduate.research.gwu.edu/advice-writing-letters-recommendation), retrieved September 2012.
Kaplan R (2000). Legal Q&A: Writing a Reference Letter. Republished from the Journal of Career Planning & Employment by National Association of Colleges and Employers (http://naceweb.org/legal/writing_reference_letter/), retrieved September 2012.
Schall J (2011). Writing Recommendation Letters Online: A Handbook for Faculty (including Ten Commandments for Writing Recommendation Letters). Penn State's John A. Dutton e-Education Institute (https://www.e-education.psu.edu/writingrecommendationlettersonline/), retrieved September 2012.
Temple L, TQ Sibley, and AJ Orr (eds. 2010). How to Mentor Undergraduate Researchers. Council on Undergraduate Research: Washington, DC.