How to Write a Letter of Recommendation for Graduate School Admissions
Indicate how long you have known the applicant and in what capacity. Graduate schools are primarily interested in recommendations that come from professors who know the applicant and his/her academic work as well as from employers. They are primarily interested in faculty members’ summary estimates of the candidate’s general promise as a graduate student. The more the recommendation reflects real knowledge of the applicant and his/her performance, the more useful the letter is to the graduate school admissions committees and thus to the applicant. The letter should address the following questions:
- Intellectual characteristics: How do you rate the applicant in overall intelligence? How well does the applicant learn and retain information? What is your assessment of the applicant’s skill in analysis and logic? What is the applicant’s ability to deal with complex or abstract matters? Does the applicant show evidence of creativity? Has the applicant’s academic record been affected by special circumstances such as work, social or academic background?
- Knowledge of field of study: What is the applicant’s depth and breadth of knowledge in the field? Does he/she know how to use the methods in the field of study or have the experience in research? Where applicable, does the applicant have the requisite laboratory techniques?
- Ability to communicate: Is the applicant an effective writer? Does the written work submitted demonstrate a mastery of the convention of English? Is the written material clear, well-organized and forceful? Is the applicant articulate in oral expression?
- Industry and self-discipline: To what extent is the applicant persistent, efficient and motivated? Is the applicant able to work independently? Is there any reason to doubt the applicant’s commitment to graduate study or diligence as a student?
- Personal effectiveness: Does the applicant possess the qualities of maturity and personal adjustment requisite for graduate study? Would you choose the applicant for graduate study under your tutelage? Does the applicant enjoy the trust and respect of fellow students and peers?
- Potential for graduate study: What is your prediction of the applicant’s probable performance in graduate school? Does he/she have any specialized skill or studies in the field? Does the applicant have an aptitude for the chosen field? How does this applicant rate with other candidates who have been evaluated?
Tips on Writing Letter of Recommendation
10 Tips for Recommenders to create an excellent letter
- Review a copy of the applicant’s personal statement or application essays so that your letter of recommendation can dovetail with–not conflict with or duplicate–the rest of the application.
- Ask the applicant to supply you with additional information like a résumé.
- Describe your qualifications for comparing the applicant to other applicants.
I have been teaching for twenty years and have advised approximately 450 students on independent research projects over the last five years.
I have personally supervised ten interns every summer for the last five years plus worked with over two hundred college graduates in my capacity as trainer for Big Bank Corp.
- Discuss how well you know the applicant.
I was able to get to know Mr. Doe because he made it a point to attend two of my sections every week when only one was required.
Ms. Smith reported directly to me for two years prior to her well-deserved promotion to the position of Senior in our Big Six Accounting Firm.
- Choose two to three qualities that you observed in the applicant.
Jane has a rare blend of top writing and interpersonal skills.
The combination of tenacity, analytical abilities, and good communications skills found in Mr. Doe is truly unique.
- In discussing those qualities, support your statements with specific instances in which he or she demonstrated those attributes. Be as concrete and detailed as possible.
He is the only student I ever had who came to all my office hours as part of a relentless, and ultimately successful, drive to master financial theory. He was one of just ten percent in the class to receive an A.
Because of Jane’s writing skills, I didn’t hesitate to ask her to write a report which was used by our PAC as the basis for a major policy statement. Congressman X eventually used the statement, based on Jane’s sophisticated 20-page analysis of Middle East politics, in lobbying for increased funding.
- Try to quantify the student’s strengths or rank him or her vis a vis other applicants that you have observed.
He was in the top 10% of his class.
She has the best analytical skills of any person her age that I have ever supervised.
- Avoid generalities and platitudes.
- Include some mild criticism, typically the flip-side of a strength.
The only fault I have encountered in him is his retiring nature. His modesty sometimes hides a young man of remarkable strength and broad interests.
Occasionally, her fortitude and persistence can turn into stubbornness, but usually her good nature and level-headedness prevail.
- Discuss the applicant’s potential in his or her chosen field.
I enthusiastically recommend Mr. Doe to your business school. This well-rounded student will be a fine businessperson.
With her exceptional leadership, writing, and quantitative skills, Ms. Smith will be an outstanding strategic consultant and a credit to the business school she attends.
[University Letter Head]
[Sender’s Address, Line 1]
[Sender’s Address, Line 2]
[Sender’s Phone Number]
[Sender’s Fax Number]
[Sender’s E-mail Address]
[Recipient’s Address, Line 1]
[Recipient’s Address, Line 2]
Dear [Recipient’s Name] or To Whom it May Concern,
It is my pleasure to recommend Jane Doe for admission to [name of program] at [name of university]. I am a fifth year Ph.D. student at the University of California, Berkeley. I came to know Jane when I was her Graduate Student Instructor for Philosophy 111: Ethical Relativism, taught by Professor John Doe. The course comprised [short description of course]. Jane distinguished herself by submitting an exceptionally well researched and interesting project on ethical practices in ancient Greece. I would rank her in the top 2% of students that I have taught in the past five years in respect of her writing ability and research skills.
Overall, Jane is highly intelligent and has good analytical skills. Her project on ethical practices in ancient Greece demonstrated her ability to come a detailed understanding of the ethical practices of another, very different culture, and to analyze the consequences of those practices for contemporary ethical theories. She gave a particularly interesting discussion of the difficult practice of infanticide, and showed both sensitivity and detachment when discussing its ethical consequences. Her overall intelligence is also reflected in her grades for the course, which were by far the best in the class.
Jane has excellent communication skills. Her written work is both clear and concise, and interesting to read. She demonstrated her oral articulateness in the discussion sections that were an integral part of the course. Each discussion section focused on a particular ethical dilemma. Students were required analyze morally problematic situations, and to develop and argue for their own ethical views with regard to the issue in question. Jane was highly proficient in applying the course material in analyzing the problem situations. She always explained her views very concisely and gave supporting arguments that were both clear and persuasive. Jane also demonstrated good team working skills in group assignments.
At a personal level, Jane is a well disciplined, industrious student with a pleasant personality. She went well beyond the course requirements in the quantity and quality of her project, putting in a lot of extra research and attending office hours every week. Throughout the course, Jane demonstrated great perseverance and initiative. She was not only interested in and motivated to learn the material, but put great work into assimilating it to her own experience and developing her own ideas about each ethical topic that we discussed.
Jane is unquestionably an exceptional candidate for graduate study in Ethics. Jane’s work in Philosophy 111 suggests that she would greatly benefit from the opportunities for intellectual development provided by a sustained period of graduate study. She has proven herself to have the perseverance and initiative, and the intellectual creativity necessary to complete an advanced graduate degree. I would therefore highly recommend Jane Doe. If her performance in my class is a good indication of how she would perform as a graduate student, she would be an extremely positive asset to your program.
If I can be of any further assistance, or provide you with any further information, please do not hesitate to contact me.
[Sender’s Name and Title]
General Outline of the Recommendation Letter
Recommendation letters are letters written by professors who know you, assessing you capacity to meet the requirements of a program you are applying for. They’re supposed to help decision-makers to get a better picture of your potential. Due to different reasons, if you are a student in Eastern Europe (including Russia) you will often find yourself in the position to write these letters yourself. The professor will, in this case, only proof-read and sign the text.
Recommendation letter usually starts by stating the name of the professor who writes the letter and his/her title, together with the name of the student for whom the letter is written. The professor should also state since when has s/he known the students: year, class or other activity. It should in any case be clear that the professor had the opportunity to get to know the student well and assess his/her capabilities. If the person does research work under your guidance, indicate the type of research, the responsibilities of the student, and any significant projects undertaken by the individual. You may wish to include a sentence about the nature of your research group and its activities. Here, you can also give a one-sentence summary or overview of your opinion of the recommended individual.
Next 2-4 Paragraphs
The assessment of the student’s capabilities should be made from a multiple point of view over the next 3-4 paragraphs. From a professional point of view, it should give account of the student’s knowledge, interests and capabilities, activities and results, work capacity, etc. Personally, it should assess the student’s personal characteristics, character, social skills, his or her relations with the students and professors. Same as in other application documents, the direction should be from facts/experience to qualifications, and from those, to value judgments. Especially those skills relevant for the desired program should be outlined throughout the paper.
Concentrate on several different aspects of the person. Specifically identify his/her skills, attitudes, personal attributes, and growth, as well as his/her contributions to and performance within your organization. Also, if you do make negative comments, back them up with facts.
Beware of the power of words! Some words seem harmless in every day conversation, but carry positive or negative connotations to a prospective employer.
Avoid bland words such as:
nice, good, fairly, reasonable, decent, satisfactory, I hope, for sure
Use powerful words such as:
articulate, effective, sophisticated, intelligent, observant, significant, expressive, creative, efficient, cooperative, imaginative, assertive, dependable, mature, innovative
Some excellent points to address would be the following:
ability to communicate, intelligence, self-confidence, willingness to accept responsibility, initiative, leadership, energy level, imagination, flexibility, interpersonal skills, self-knowledge, ability to handle conflict, goal achievement, competitiveness, appropriate research skills, direction.
The final paragraph should provide an overall assessment of the student’s potential to fulfill the requirements of the program, even though partial judgments can and should be provided in the body of the letter. You can make a more broad characterization of the individual and his or her demeanor. Finally, indicate the degree to which you recommend the individual to the program she or he is seeking: recommend without reservation, strongly recommend, highly recommend, enthusiastically recommend.
Most recommendation forms contain a certain number of fields, the multiple-choice kind, where the professor has to assess, by checking cells, your abilities. Make sure those fields are checked and insert the text in the place left for additional remarks. Do not leave blank that portion of the form, but use it instead as a self-standing recommendation letter.
Some of the graduate study programs supply you with forms for the recommendation letters that ask the professor to ask a number of specific questions about your skills and qualifications. Sometimes, space for the answer is allowed after each question, and there is where the answers should be written, rather than on a separate sheet of paper. Other times, the questions come as a block, an in this case you have the option to answer the question still in the form of a letter. Should you chose this option, make sure the letter answers clearly every single question, preferably in the order in which they are asked on the form.
Don’t forget to write the date and the name of the home university. The name of the program you are applying for should come out explicitly in the body of the text, in order to make clear that the letter has been written for that occasion.
Sample Outline of the Recommendation Letter
[Writer’s Name or Company Letterhead]
[Street • City • State • Zip Code]
[Phone # • Fax phone # • Messages phone # • Email]
[Recipient’s address block – optional]
Dear [Recipient’s name] or To Whom it May Concern:
[First and foremost, if you don’t feel comfortable writing a letter of recommendation, don’t. A vague or fabricated recommendation letter might do more harm than good. Start by identifying your relationship with the person for whom you’re writing the letter. Are you the person’s manager, co-worker or professor? How long have you known or worked with the person?]
[Picture the person in his or her job role. Point out a variety of positive traits while focusing on work ethics, accomplishments, skills, and significant contributions (use specific examples). If you draw a blank, ask the person to refresh your memory. If you have access to the person’s merit reviews, refer to them for hints. If for business reasons you’re sorry to see this person go, say so. Avoid vague, powerless words such as nice, good, fine and reasonable. Use words such as excellent, superior, instrumental, creative, innovative, efficient, dependable, articulate, meticulous, self-starter and confident.]
[Wrap it up with a recommendation to admit or hire. Close by offering to provide more information. Include your contact information if it’s not in the letterhead.]
Dos and Don’ts for Recommendation Letters
The following are lists of dos and don’ts to consider when writing personal statement. These lists are based on suggestions which I consider sensible and which are common to those providing guidance.
- Make sure that the Letter of Recommendation does not conflict with or duplicate the rest of the application (Personal Statement, Transcripts, Resume, etc.)
- Describe your qualifications for comparing the applicant to other applicants.
“I have been teaching for twenty years and have advised approximately 450 students on independent research projects over the last five years. ”
“I have personally supervised ten interns every summer for the last five years plus worked with over two hundred college graduates in my capacity as trainer for Company X “
- Discuss how well you know the applicant.
“I was able to get to know Mr. Doe because he made it a point to attend two of my sections every week when only one was required. “
- Choose two or three (or more) qualities that you observed in the applicant.
“The combination of tenacity, analytical abilities, and good communications skills found in Mr. Doe is truly unique.”
- Support your statements with specific examples in which the applicant has demonstrated those attributes. Be as concrete and detailed as possible
“He is the only student I ever had who came to all my office hours as part of a relentless, and ultimately successful, drive to master financial theory. He was one of just ten percent in the class to receive an A. “
- Try to quantify the student’s strengths or rank him or her vis a vis other applicants that you have observed.
“He was in the top 10% of his class.”
“She has the best analytical skills of any person her age that I have ever supervised. “
- Try to describe the student in terms that reflect that student’s distinctive or individual strengths. Whatever strengths strike you as particularly salient, be prepared to back up your judgment with concrete examples – papers, exams, class presentations, or performance in a laboratory.
- Include some mild criticism, typically the flip-side of a strength.
“The only fault I have encountered in him is his retiring nature. His modesty sometimes hides a young man of remarkable strength and broad interests.”
“Occasionally, her fortitude and persistence can turn into stubbornness, but usually her good nature and level-headedness prevail.”
- Discuss the applicant’s potential in his or her chosen field it may give the student the edge over other applicants, since most committees look not only for what the student has already done but what he or she has the potential to accomplish..
“I enthusiastically recommend Mr. Doe to your business school. This well-rounded student will be a fine businessperson.”
“With her exceptional leadership, writing, and quantitative skills, Ms. Smith will be an outstanding strategic consultant and a credit to the business school she attends.”
- Waive your rights. You have the legal right to read the stuff colleges have in their files about you. Virtually all recommendation forms include a little box where you can waive this right by signing your name. By all means, waive the right. Colleges won’t pay attention to your recommendations if they think the people who wrote them were worried that you would be reading them. Sign the waiver before you give the forms to your teachers.
- Use generalities and platitudes.
- Reference characteristics that can be the basis of discrimination, such as race, color, nationality, gender, religion, age, appearance, any handicapping condition, marital or parental status, or political point of view.
- Use the misconception that the more superlatives that you use, the stronger the letter. Heavy use of stock phrases or clichés in general is unhelpful. Your letter can only be effective if it contains substantive information about the student’s qualifications.
- Use empty, vague, overly-used words like meaningful, beautiful, challenging, rewarding, etc.
- Say “I hope”, instead say “I am confident…” or “I am sure…”
Questions and Answers for Recommendation Letters
What is the purpose of the Recommendation Letter?
Recommendation letters are letters written by professors who know you, assessing you capacity to meet the requirements of a program you are applying for. They’re supposed to help decision-makers to get a better picture of your potential. The most helpful letters come from teachers who have had considerable contact with you, especially in non-classroom setting such as research labs.
What information should be included in the Recommendation Letter?
A letter of recommendation is a detailed discussion, from a faculty member, of the personal qualities, accomplishments, and experiences that make you unique and perfect for the programs to which you’ve applied. A well written letter of recommendation provides admissions committees with information that isn’t found elsewhere in the application. It should be written with the understanding that what makes a student’s application packet stand out from the others is not only grades and accomplishments, but the specifics of what the student did and how he or she went about it. Selection committees normally weed out mediocre application packets before focusing on the excellent ones. This means that a brief letter with phrases like “good student” and “hard worker” that aren’t substantiated with examples will get tossed aside in favor of the detailed letter that doesn’t just tell but shows how qualified the student is.
Most committees look not only for what the student has already done but what he or she has the potential to accomplish. Addressing potential may take a little more time than discussing past deeds, but it may give the student the edge over other applicants.
See General Outline of the Recommendation Letter for more details.
Who should I ask for the Letter of Recommendation?
The best kind of letter is from someone who has been involved with you professionally. This person should know you and your work well and have a high opinion of you.
Good choices include:
* The person who is supervising research on your part, such as your current or former scientific advisor (“nauchnii rukovoditel”)
* Your colleague from the lab with at least PhD (= “kandidat nauk”)
* Your “seminarist” (and possibly also lecturer) with whom you have/had frequent interactions
* The Dean or the Vice-dean of your department
A letter from an employer can be useful if the job was related to the field to which you are applying, and the letter comments on your accomplishments of specific duties, your aptitude for this type of work and so on. Otherwise, such letters are usually not helpful.
Is it important for my recommender to be well-known person?
It is much to your advantage if your recommender is a well-known person in his field especially if members of the admission committee know his name. Just remember the general letter from the famous person who had little interaction with you and can just say that you are a good student but give no specifics of your joint research or other activities is no good. In this case you’d better off with the recommendation from somebody less famous but well acquainted with your research and personality and ready to write absolutely positively about you.
How many Letters of Recommendation do I need?
Most universities will ask you for 3 Recommendation Letters, rarely 2 or 4. Check with the particular department for details. As a rule you can submit 3 Recommendation Letters to all the programs.
How long should the Letter of Recommendation be?
The optimum length is between 2/3 of a page and one page. If the Recommendation Letter is shorter the admission committee might assume that recommender lacks enthusiasm.
Do I write the letter myself or do I ask the professor to do that?
In Russia most students write their Letters of Recommendation themselves. This is mostly due to fact that the recommenders don’t know English well enough to write recommendation and do not know the format in which they are expected to write recommendation (They are used to writing “harakteristiki”, which are quite different from Letters of Recommendation). Some recommenders would choose to write in Russian and ask you to translate it in the appropriate form in English. The only exceptions I know when the recommenders chose to write recommendations on their own were when either recommenders were Americans or Europeans or they were Russians closely affiliated with American research institutions.
Some advice on Writing your own Recommendation Letter.
Is it possible that the admission committee will contact the recommender?
It is possible but quite unlikely situation. The only cases I know when the recommenders were contacted is when the recommenders were quite famous people and their recommendations were too good to be true. In this case the admission committee might send the letter or e-mail or call (whichever information is provided on the recommendation) asking whether this person really gave this recommendation. Also, there is no need to provide the e-mail address on the recommendation letter if you don’t want to. In my case, my recommenders have been contacted only ones by MIT (after I have been admitted) with the thank you letter for providing useful information.
Useful Phrases for Recommendation Letters
If you want to see other examples check out Sample Letters of Reference
First, you need to express your positive feeling about writing the letter. Then explain how long you have known the person and what your relationship has been (supervisor, teacher, co-worker).
I am delighted to be called upon as a reference for John Smart. I first became acquainted with Mr. Smart in 1992, when he joined the…
Mr. Smart has asked me to write a letter of recommendation to accompany his application for PhD program in Physics at MIT. I am very pleased to do so.
It has been a pleasure to be Mr. Smart’s supervisor since 1990.
I am happy to write this letter of recommendation for Steven Smart. In this letter I would like to express my respect and appreciation for this bright young person, who brought outstanding contribution to the work of my group.
I have no hesitancy in writing a letter of recommendation for Mr. Smart.
It is a pleasure to write a letter of recommendation for as Ms. Smart.
I have known Ms. Smart since 1993, when she enrolled in my accounting class.
I was Mr. Smart’s teacher in two advanced quantum mechanics classes during winter semester, 1995.
am honored to support him as a candidate
am pleased to provide a reference for
am delighted to be called upon
am happy to recommend
am pleased to comment on
can offer only the highest recommendation for
first became acquainted with
first came to my attention when
has worked directly under my supervision
has been a pleasure to supervise
have known Ms. Doe for
have no hesitation in recommending
have been his supervisor since
her performance as a
his qualifications and performance
have had the opportunity to
in the past two years
is a pleasure to recommend
was a student in two of my classes
Describing Person’s Qualifications
Discuss the person’s qualifications for the graduate study in the chosen field. Statements of past performance, accomplishments, and contributions are helpful. The more relevant the items mentioned, and the greater the detail, the better your letter will communicate your positive recommendation. General comments provide a neutral recommendation or suggest that you do not really recommend the person highly.
Since the beginning of our collaboration I know him as an energetic and goal-oriented person.
Some of the main Irina’s attributes are her persistence and diligence sometimes even ranging with obsession with work.
He grasps new concepts quickly and accepts constructive criticism and instruction concerning his work.
While she was with us she supervised the maintenance of all computer networks. This responsibility involved working with 42 separate offices.
He has proactively joined research at our institute.
I would like to mention here, that John is accurate and thorough in his research, pays attention to details and has no dread of routine work.
His extraordinary ability to analyze problems and outline necessary courses of action was invaluable.
In a class of thirty, he completed the course with the second highest grade.
That was mostly due to her assiduity and devotion to work that she was soon able to proceed with actual experiments.
I would like to say that it is pleasant to work with Michael, he is reliable and intelligent person with good sense of humor.
Her greatest talent is in developing innovations for new products.
John always takes an active part in scientific discussions, demonstrating maturity, strong ability to defend his ideas while paying careful attention to opponent’s remarks.
She finishes her work on schedule. When she has a concern or question about an assignment, she speaks her mind clearly and directly, giving voice to what others may feel but cannot or will not say.
From our collaboration I can conclude that George has a strong motivation for scientific work. He is a focused and determined person.
a creative problem-solver
always cheerful and dependable
always behaves professionally
broad range of skills
can attest to his integrity
careful attention to detail
comments are well thought out and clearly articulated
communicates her ideas clearly
communicates effectively in writing
completely loyal and trustworthy
demonstrated particular strengths in
follows tasks through to completion
gets along well with others
handles responsibility well
has a take-charge personality
has a flair for organization
her sensitivity and concern for others
is innovative and creative
is a tireless worker
is mature beyond her years
is intelligent and ambitious
is personable and easy to work with
keeps calm under pressure
meticulous attention to detail
one of our finest, most well-rounded undergraduates
outstanding leadership abilities
punctual and hard working
wide-range knowledge of
willing to go beyond what is required
willing to take on new responsibilities
works efficiently and effectively
works independently and effectively
works well with little supervision
Close with a clear statement of your recommendation and a willingness to cooperate further.
Mr. Bright will be a great addition to your program. If I can further assist, please e-mail or call me.
Jane Bright has my strong recommendation. She will be a credit to your program.
I am confident that Mr. Bright will continue to be very productive. He has my highest recommendation.
I give her my highest recommendation, without reservation. Please send e-mail or call me if you have further questions.
I believe in John’s outstanding abilities for scientific work and strongly recommend him for further education at your university, where he can develop and apply his bright talents.
It is satisfying to be able to give him my highest recommendation. I hope this information proves helpful.
I enthusiastically recommend Mr. Bright as a promising candidate.
Seldom have I been able to recommend someone without reservation. It is a pleasure to do so in the case of John Bright.
I will be pleased to answer any additional questions you may have.
I am very interested in Mr. Bright’s application and will be happy to provide further information.
every confidence in her ability to
give my unqualified recommendation
has always proved satisfactory
has my highest recommendation
have admiration and respect for
have no reservations in
hope this information proves helpful
if I can further assist
if you have further questions
if you need additional information
if you would like more information
recommend without reservation
recommend her very highly
request your favorable consideration of
should be given serious consideration
should you have any questions
will meet your expectations
will be successful in any enterprise he undertakes
will be a credit to your
will measure up to your high standards
will be a great addition to
would be an asset to your program
would be a valuable addition to
Words to Avoid
Do not include comments about race, color, religion, handicap, sex, national origin, marital status, or parental status.
Writing Your Own Letter of Recommendation
Balance praise with candidness. Many people feel uncomfortable praising themselves. If you are the shy type, cast aside your timidity and try to be objective about your accomplishments. Letters of recommendation are, by definition, laudatory: so grab a sheet of paper and make a list of your good qualities. On the other hand, don’t completely discard modesty and err on the side of pure, distilled self-praise: your supervisor might not agree that you are indeed “superhumanly brilliant”, and anyway admissions readers are much keener on candid, well-balanced letters than ones rife with superlatives.
Pick wisely and discard the fluff. Writing your own letter of recommendation is not unlike putting together your resume: you must choose your accomplishments carefully. A letter that highlights two or three specific qualities, accomplishments, and achievements is far stronger than one that covers all your positive traits. If you are having trouble paring down the content, ask a friend or colleague to look over the text and pick out the most impressive points.
Maintain credibility. Concentrate on making the letter believable. This doesn’t mean just sticking with the facts; it means finding a voice that accurately portrays you from the recommendation writer’s perspective. Remember that the letter must be stylistically different from your other submitted written work. Vary your vocabulary, adapt expressions, and generally avoid phrasing things exactly as you did, say, in your personal statement or cover letter.
Avoid redundancy. Don’t repeat accomplishments that have been described in detail elsewhere in your application. The letter should support your main accomplishments rather than merely rehash your resume. Write about these accomplishments in a new light, expanding on areas where you did not have the opportunity to elaborate on elsewhere in the application or cover letter .
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