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Tips for Writing Letters of Recommendation

Letters of recommendation are required to support most applications for scholarships, graduate schools, law schools, medical schools, and on occasion, jobs. Due to the increasingly competitive nature of internships, recommendations are also becoming necessary for January and summer internships. Writing a quality letter of recommendation requires that both you, as the writer, and the student for whom you are writing the letter, are prepared to present the very best case for his or her candidacy. Below are some tips for writers to help you write the best letter possible.

Be Sure of Your Ability to Write the Letter
The most important rule in writing letters of recommendation is to just say no if you aren't sure you can't write a glowing letter. It is difficult to say no to an eager graduate school applicant or job-searcher, but it is better for the searcher to know that you can't effectively endorse him or her. If you can't write a glowing letter because the person's performance has been less than stellar, it's important for him or her to know. One way to break this news may be through a statement like this one: "John, I don't think that I am the best person to be a reference for you at this time. Have you thought of someone else you could ask?"

Be Specific
Use specific examples to support your statements. Specific examples will enhance the value of positive comments and will protect you from legal action. If you choose to include unfavorable information, you must include specific examples to illustrate your point.

Beware of Ambiguity
Letters of recommendation tend to be overwhelmingly positive. Because most letters are inflated, ambiguity is often viewed as suspect by selection committees. Any equivocal information might be interpreted in a negative light, even if you did not intend so.

Establish credibility
To the reader, your letter is you. Its grammar, spelling, format, and logical structure must indicate to the reader that you are someone who is intelligent and well-educated - otherwise, the reader is unlikely to trust your opinion.

Organize the Letter
An effective letter of recommendation is structured and comprehensive. Below are a few components to consider including in your letter:

  • Begin your letter by indicating for whom you are writing, what he or she is applying to, and set an overall tone for the letter.

    This letter serves as a recommendation for Jane Doe, an applicant for fall admittance to your LSDAS-participating law program.

  • Describe your qualifications for comparing the applicant to other applicants.

    I have been teaching for fifteen years and have advised over four hundred and fifty students interested in health professions.

  • Try to quantify the student's strengths or rank him or her in relation to other applicants that you have observed.

    Ms. Doe ranks among the top 10% of her class. Her language skills far exceed those of her peers, a characteristic that has been demonstrated through her receipt of all three annual publication awards in this year's edition of our campus literary magazine.

  • Discuss how well you know the applicant.

    I was able to get to know John because he made it a point to attend two of my sections every week when only one was required.

  • Choose two to three qualities that you observed in the applicant.

    Jane has a rare blend of analytical reasoning and interpersonal skills.

  • Discuss the applicant's potential in his or her chosen field.

    With her exceptional leadership, writing, and quantitative skills, Ms. Doe will be an outstanding strategic consultant and a credit to the business school she attends.