Here on the Ideas on Fire blog, we’ve talked mentorship, teaching, and best practices for putting together your tenure file. But what about the work of helping others meet their own professional and educational goals? If you’re an instructor at any level (even while you’re still in graduate school) there’s a good chance you’ll be asked to write a letter of recommendation for one of your students. It may seem like a straightforward task, but if you’re new to the practice, not sure how to approach writing such a letter, or unsure as to whether you can honestly endorse the student who’s made the request, where do you begin?
The first thing to do when a student has reached out to you with a letter of recommendation request is fact-find. Even if you are a seasoned letter writer, this preliminary stage helps you determine what the letter will entail—and if you should write it at all.
First of all, make sure that you know the student personally. Especially if the request comes from a student who took a large lecture class with you, make sure you have something distinctive to say.
Strong recommendation letters should reflect your student’s work, their unique perspective, and the relationship they have with you. Make sure you are clear on all three.
Ask for What You Need
Ideally, your student should approach you with a clear explanation of the program, job, internship, or grant they are applying to and why they are a good fit. (If they haven’t, send them our article on how to ask for a letter of recommendation.)
Even better, they should provide you with a copy of their application materials to demonstrate how they are positioning themselves and their experiences to land their desired role. Granted, this is not always possible. At the very least, request that students share some summary points about the role itself, why they are applying, and what they believe they bring to the table.
It is also appropriate to ask them what they want you to highlight in your letter. Note that this does not commit you to actually including any of these points in your letter of recommendation should you disagree with them. But overall, your student should do the heavy lifting of pitching why they think you should endorse them, and how.
Remember that writing recommendation letters takes a lot of work! To make sure it remains a manageable task and that your time is respected, approach the letter as a collaboration between you and your student. This does not mean the student writes it, or that you don’t stand by every word it contains. But since you’re not the applicant (and potentially not familiar with the job, school, program, grant, or internship being applied for) the onus is on the student to lay out for you why they are pursuing this particular opportunity and why they they’d be a good fit.
Decide Which Letters to Write
You are not obligated to write a letter of recommendation for any student who asks. You should not endorse a student you don’t actually stand behind.
Do try to say yes as much as possible, however, unless there are extenuating circumstances. If you are honestly on the fence, consider sharing that hesitation, tactfully, with your student. Explain that you’re not sure you are the best person to write their letter, and need a bit more information time to consider their request. You can ask them to provide more information (including the materials mentioned above), as well as their perspective on why they’ve reached out to you.
Ultimately, if you feel you must say no, try to make it a teachable moment and be conscientious about explaining why.
Also keep in mind that you will not always be recommending your star pupils—this is pretty typical in fact. Regardless, it is important that you be thoughtful and intentional in recommending students whose letters you have agreed to write, especially if you believe they have potential.
Paint a Clear (and Specific) Picture
A good letter of recommendation should paint a clear picture of how your student performed in your class, and how they are suited for the specific position they are applying to.
It should certainly highlight their academic skills and the tangible progress they made in your class. But it should also emphasize their “softer” skills, such as the student’s flexibility and willingness to learn new material, their collegiality and contributions to the classroom community, and their responsibility in handling assignments (or facing challenges).
Use concrete examples to illustrate your points. Include details of the student’s most successful assignment, for example, or a meaningful contribution they made in a class discussion. Make sure to show (not just tell) why your student would be a good fit for that job, school, program, or organization.
Structuring the Letter
Just like cover letters, strong recommendation letters are as tailored and specific possible. But for efficiency’s sake, you can use a general formula to structure your letters.
The introductory paragraph should lay out how you know the student, and present a general synopsis of how you see them.
The body of the letter fleshes out this perspective, turning to a few key examples of successful moments or moments of growth that the student had while in your class, demonstrating why you are endorsing them for the specific role they’re applying for.
Wrap up your letter with an emphatic statement of support and the offer of more information or materials should the application committee deem them necessary.
If nothing else, there is one fundamental mantra you should keep in mind when writing recommendation letters: Look for the silver lining, but be honest, always.
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