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How to Write a Grad School Recommendation Letter

I was flattered (and a bit intimidated) when I was asked to write a letter of recommendation for the first time. The task seemed so “high stakes”—my letter would factor into a student’s potential admission to a master’s program. And at the time, I was a mere 22-year-old second-year PhD student.

As luck might have it, an esteemed professor in my department had recently told a story about her first experience writing a letter of recommendation that calmed my nerves a little. “It took forever!” she recalled. But once she got the hang of it, the process became easier and more efficient every time.

Once you have a few years of experience under your belt, there’s a good chance you’ll be asked to write letters of recommendation for graduate school admissions, awards, or fellowships, too. And while it’s easy to be nervous about tackling this for the first time, don’t worry—just follow these basic guidelines to build a strong, supportive case for your colleague or mentee.

Be Selective

First things first: Before you agree to recommend someone, it’s important to assess whether you know the candidate well enough to speak about her in the context of the program she’s applying for. Unless you’re specifically asked to be a personal or character reference, applications that require letters of recommendation typically assume that you’ve worked with or supervised the applicant in an academic or professional setting.

So, even if you can speak to a friend’s leadership skills from personal experience (e.g., you volunteered together or co-chaired a social event for your sorority), if you haven’t been her direct supervisor or co-worker, you may not be her best bet. Along similar lines, if you don’t feel confident that you can say something truly unique about her, or don’t feel comfortable writing a strong letter on her behalf, it would probably be best to suggest finding another recommender.

But if you have a robust professional relationship with the applicant, and know her skills and abilities, don’t be afraid to take the plunge!

Compose a Glowing (But Relevant) Letter

OK—you’re ready to write, but what do you include? To make sure you produce the most effective letter possible, follow the tips below.

1. Enlist the Applicant’s Help

Even if you know the applicant very well, you’ll need some pertinent information to help you write the best letter possible. So, don’t be afraid to ask her for guidance.

For example, why is she applying for this particular program? What skills and experiences does she think will stand out most to the admissions committee? What are some of the accomplishments she is most proud of? Ask for a copy of her resume or supporting materials—then use them to tailor your letter of recommendation (e.g., if she’s applying to a finance program, you probably won’t need to write extensively about her creativity and video editing skills!).

2. Pinpoint Her Best Traits

Admissions committees receive hundreds (or thousands) of applications for far fewer available openings. So, beyond minimum requirements like education and experience, they’re looking for standout traits—the “X factors” that set someone apart in a sea of applications.

To pinpoint these characteristics, recall your interactions with the applicant: Is there a particular accomplishment that stands out to you? Have you observed her overcome an obstacle at work—and how did she get through it? How might these experiences help her succeed in grad school? Whether she’s a great leader or comes up with creative solutions to problems, think about the most important descriptors you could use.

More importantly, make sure to provide examples and specific behaviors to back those traits up. It’s your job as a recommender to describe the applicant to someone who doesn’t know her, and anecdotes can be tremendously helpful in bringing her personality to life and making her stand out from the crowd.

3. Watch Your Language

You’ve probably heard that there are certain words to avoid when writing a resume—well, it’s also true for letters of recommendation. Catchall terms like “hardworking,” “enthusiastic,” or “creative” don’t mean much when all the other applicants are described with the same vague terms.

So, avoid overly flowery or ambiguous language in your letter. Be as detailed as possible when describing your candidate, and always give concrete examples to emphasize the traits you mention.

4. Write About the Applicant as a Whole

It’s important to remember that committees are seeking out people to round out their incoming class—not just a checklist of qualifications.

So as you write, think about how the applicant may be able to contribute to her new class in ways that aren’t obvious from her application materials. Does she have a great sense of humor? Is she a great listener, always willing to lend an ear or a helping hand? Or, perhaps her interests outside of work could provide the selection committee with a better sense of her personality. For instance, if she just completed her first marathon, you may have witnessed her determination.

Details like these won’t be in an applicant’s resume, but they can really help the admissions team envision how she would contribute to their academic community.

Nail the Logistics

Now that you’ve written the content of the letter, the rest is just details!

Reviewers have limited time to pore through applications, so it’s important to be succinct—keep your recommendation to a single page. Use your company or school’s letterhead if available, and sign the bottom with your name, current job title, and contact information in case an admissions officer needs to follow up.

You’ll also have to make the decision whether to let the applicant see the letter or not. Many application forms give candidates the option to waive their right to see the final product, but as the recommender, it’s really up to you (some recommenders won’t agree to write a letter unless the student waives that right). Most commonly, it’s assumed that waiving the right indicates a level of trust between the recommender and the applicant, so many letter writers feel most comfortable keeping the contents of their recommendation confidential.

Finally, and perhaps most obviously, double-check the deadlines and submission guidelines to make sure your letter is in good shape and serves its purpose.

Once you’ve submitted the recommendation, let your applicant know, wish her the best of luck, and you’re done! With your help, the applicant is well on her way to a successful and fulfilling future.

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