Tips for Writing Recommendation Letters

A letter of recommendation is “expert testimony” to a student’s ability to perform a task: contributing to a team project, succeeding in a doctoral program, or learning from a particular experience (such as research or an internship). You need to be confident of the applicant’s ability to be able to write convincingly. For detailed information about the letter writing process, including sample recommendations, view this document (PDF).

Tips for Writing Recommendation Letters

Recommendation Letters for Graduate School Applicants
For graduate school, there is a kind of “code” for levels of confidence. Letter writers use these phrases at the beginning or end of the letter to express their professional evaluation. Generally speaking, there are four levels of confidence as suggested by graduate school forms themselves:

  • Strongly recommend – You are very confident in the applicant’s ability
  • Recommend – You are confident in applicant’s ability
  • Recommend with reservations – You are somewhat confident, but have specific areas of doubt (include an explanation)
  • Do not recommend – You do not believe in applicant’s ability to succeed (include an explanation)

Tips for Successful Recommendation Letters
A letter of recommendation succeeds on the same merits as any form of persuasive writing: good vocabulary, solid essay structure, appropriate content, and relevant details.

  • Vocabulary – use strong, vivid language in both nouns and verbs.
  • Essay Structure – Structure the letter as a four-to-five-paragraph essay with a thesis.
  1. The first paragraph should state how long writer has known applicant, in what context, and general “thesis” statement regarding applicant’s abilities/suitability for position.
  2. The main body should provide two or three examples or qualities that inspire confidence (or lack of confidence) in the applicant’s skills or character.
  3. Conclude with an explicit level of recommendation (strongly/highly, recommend, recommend with reservations [must provide explanation], do not recommend [must provide explanation]).
  • Appropriate Content – Avoid exaggeration or speculation outside of your knowledge base.
  • Details – Include a few well-chosen examples of why you recommend this individual. The examples should be obviously within your sphere of knowledge.

Format of Recommendation Letters
These are official documents and should be written using the following professional/business format:

  • On professional or organizational letterhead; Appropriate addressing
  • Block flush-left paragraphs; Appropriate greetings and closings
  • 11 pt. font; One to two pages long