The Center for Life Beyond Reed

Best Practices

Characteristics of Strong Recommendation Letters

  • Letters should be 1-2 paged single-spaced in length.
  • Provide the context for your relationship with the candidate and the length of time you have known him/her.
  • Situate the candidate's performance in the larger context of your experience.
  • Address the student's academic performance or extracurricular engagements in detail and with specific examples if possible. A recommendation that demonstrates a personal knowledge of the candidate beyond the grade they may have received in your class delivers a strong and lasting impression. Try, therefore, not to rely solely on a summary of a candidate's performance in a class or a cursory review of their transcript and/or resume.
  • Some scholarships (like the Truman) will ask you to address a very specific quality in a candidate (like leadership, for example). The candidate should be clear about what you are being asked to address and your letter should clearly and specifically address that quality.
  • Be specific about why the student is a strong candidate for a specific fellowship.
  • Avoid hyperbole as well as overly negative language. The foundations that grant these awards are looking for realistic, substantive evaluations of candidates rather than overly positive, unsupported statements.

Download a handout on how to avoid gender bias when writing letters of recommendation.

Characteristics of Weak Recommendation Letters

  • Too short, vague, unsupported points.
  • Generic letter or letters that were obviously written for other purposes (grad school admission, for example).
  • Letters that merely summarize a candidate's resume or transcript.
  • Letters that merely describe classes taken or activities rather than the work the candidate did within those contexts.
  • Letters that evaluate the candidate negatively, or even as merely average.

When to Decline to Write a Recommendation Letter

You should not write a letter of recommendation for a student or alumnus/a if

  • you are not strongly and positively supportive of the candidate;
  • you do not feel that you know the candidate well enough or cannot remember enough about them to provide a substantive, detailed letter;
  • You do not feel that you are the right person to recommend them for the fellowship or job;
  • You do not have the time to write one.*

*Recommendation letters that come in after the deadline for national fellowships will never be considered as a part of the candidate's application by the foundation, and will therefore greatly disadvantage the candidate.

Additional Resources

Express Advising and Drop-In Hours 

Express Advising w/ Peer Career Advisors

Express Advising is on hiatus until spring semester. However, CLBR is still open and you can schedule an appointment with an advisor or stop by the drop-in hours listed below. Spring semester Express Advising hours will be posted at the start of the semester.

Drop-In Hours w/ CLBR Staff
Tuesdays, 12pm-1:30pm, Commons (Fellowships Q&A)
Wednesdays, 11:30am-1:30pm, MRC
Thursdays, 11:30am-1:30pm, Commons
Fridays, 11:30am-1:30pm, Commons

Note: Please check the announcements on your homepage in Griffin Door for any possible updates or cancellations.


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