Over the course of their career, a professor will write approximately 4,766 letters of recommendation*. These letters are an integral part of the job, and are often seen as a source of stress; for a student, however, a strong LOR can be the difference between a graduate school acceptance or coveted position and another long year of purgatory.
So, how can you transform what has the potential to be tedious into a rewarding, meaningful endeavor? We’ve collected advice on how to streamline and simplify the process from request to hand-off, to make what can be an onerous task into a well-oiled machine. Finally, you’ll find an FAQ to answer some of the thorniest issues that arise when writing an LOR, including "How do I say no?"
*Yes, we made this up, but it feels accurate.
Letters of Recommendation: The Basics
The first step to dealing with the deluge of LOR requests is to set up a triage system. We recommend creating two email templates you can use to respond. You can save these as drafts; or, use Unicycle to create blurbs that you can instantly insert and edit as needed.
Yes, I’m happy to! This email should include requests for all relevant info that you need to write a strong letter. Some professors create a Google Form expressly for this purpose—you could even include the link in your email signature, or in Unicycle's quicklinks.
- Students’ pronouns
- Current CV and recent transcripts
- Work sample (if appropriate)
- Deadline for letter
- When, and if, the student should send you a reminder
- How to submit letter
- What they are applying for
- Why they believe they are qualified
- What makes them interesting as a candidate
No, I don’t believe I am the best person to write this letter. We’ll go into more detail on how to refuse LOR requests below, but having a template on hand to use can mitigate some of the emotional labor that goes into managing refusals.
Remember that asking for a LOR requires a certain amount of vulnerability on behalf of the student. Craft responses that are clear but compassionate, and always, always respond to a request (even if just to refuse).
How to craft a strong letter of recommendation
If you’re writing your first LOR, or just looking to improve, spend some time studying examples. Ask your colleagues for sample letters, or check with your department administrator. As a faculty member, you likely have access to the LORs included in graduate student applications.
Thankfully, most LORs follow a template, one that can be customized and easily replicated. Once you feel like you have a strong draft, save it so that you can quickly substitute relevant information for the next request. As time goes on, you may want to save a few versions of the draft: one for students who took a class with you, one for students you worked closely with outside of class (TAs, lab managers, advisees, etc), one for students applying to particular fields (law vs medicine), etc.
FIRST PARAGRAPH: Introduce yourself and the candidate. Briefly sketch the student’s subject(s) of interest, and their place in the field.
BODY PARAGRAPHS: This is the section that will need to be customized for each student, and where you should spend the bulk of your time while preparing the letter. You’ll want to include specific examples of the qualities the student has that will make them successful in the position or at the institution, backed up by clear evidence.
- Include a substantive discussion of the student’s research or work, and how that work relates to or is in conversation with the field at large. How will this student’s work contribute to the broader landscape of research? How will it advance the field?
- Talk about specific achievements, and use details. Examples: Student X was the first in my lab to be published in X journal; their final paper was one of the most complete analyses of Woolf’s early modernism I’ve seen from a student; their talk on X at X conference was extremely professional and received great feedback from my colleagues.
- Think of ways you can show how the student responded to challenges and how they grew from those experiences. Consider any particular achievements they might have had as a teacher, if applicable, or in a service role (i.e. they led a mentorship program, were active on a search committee, etc).
- Feel free to include discussion of their personal attributes, but make sure the qualities you bring up are relevant to the position—i.e. works well with others in a lab setting, is self-motivated and comfortable with independent research.
CONCLUSION: Use this paragraph to reiterate your support for the student, and conclude with one or two compelling reasons why you believe they are well-suited to the position.
💡 Heads up: Research shows that, on average, letters of recommendation for men are 16% longer than letters for women, and are four times more likely to mention publications. The unconscious biases that show up in LORs continue to contribute to disparities in academia. Be aware of these potential biases, and triple-check all letters for these common pitfalls.
Ultimately, crafting a strong letter of recommendation is as much a matter of preparation as it is about expressing genuine support for a candidate. And with a scaffold of templates in place, you're well on your way to making these letters one of the more pleasurable aspects of professor life.
How do I say no? In a perfect world, every LOR request would be from your favorite student, and every letter would be a free-flowing fountain of praise. If, however, you’re approached by a student for whom you can’t, for whatever reason, write a strong letter—either you don’t know (or remember) the student well enough, or your experience with them makes you unwilling to recommend them—say no. It is better for the student to have a strong letter than a weak one. Consider language such as:
- "I encourage you to find a professor who can better represent your strengths," or,
- "Unfortunately, I won't be able to write you a strong letter. I would recommend working with a professor who knows your body of work better."
You could also offer to help them brainstorm other professors who might be better suited, or refer them to your on-campus guidance office that can work with them to identify letter writers. (And save this rejection email as a blurb with Unicycle, so you don’t have to struggle with it each time!)
How long should a letter of recommendation be? A solid LOR should run no less than two single-spaced pages. If you need to write a less-than-positive letter, keep it short. Let the search committee read between the lines. One page or less is considered a "red flag" for many.
Should I show it to my student if they ask? In general, no. Letters of recommendation are confidential, and should be sent directly to the search committee. However, some letter writers do decide to share the letter after it has been submitted (one professor said students so rarely hear positive feedback that these letters are a good way of boosting students up). Use your best judgment.
Can I rescind a letter if I change my mind? In the rare instance that you need to make a change to a letter, try addressing the issue with the student first if possible. At the very least, inform them that you will be rescinding or altering your letter before you reach out to the search committee.
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