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 and Drop-In Hours are on hiatus for the summer and will return for fall semester. CLBR is open all summer and you can schedule appointments with an advisor.

 


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