University of Wisconsin–Madison

5 Tips for Writing Letters of Recommendation

One of the inevitabilities of academic work is being asked to write a letter of recommendation for a student, mentee, or advisee. These letters can be for a variety of post-university opportunities—fellowships, academic positions, jobs, internships, postdocs—and each needs to be tailored to fit the specifics of the opportunity. Below, we offer five best practices for such letters. These practices are not comprehensive but are meant to be general starting points in your writing process. Make sure that your letters of recommendation speak to the position(s) for which the candidate/student is applying.

In addition to the tips below, the WAC program offers one workshop each semester on writing letters of recommendation. This spring, the workshop will take place on Monday, April 6 from 2:30-4:00 p.m. Registration is open here.

  1. Identify the purpose and audience for your letter of recommendation. A letter written, for example, to a highly-competitive medical residency program will necessarily look much different from a letter written to a graduate program or an internship. Some programs will expect you to rank the applicant (i.e., “in the top 10% of students I’ve taught”), while for others that isn’t necessary. Think about what will stand out to that particular application committee. If you had to read through 50 or 100 or even 200 letters of recommendation, what would you want to see in a letter?
  2. It’s not about you. As a letter writer, resist making your recommendation too much about your course or your teaching philosophy. Limit this content to the first part of the letter of recommendation—here, you can introduce yourself, your qualifications for assessing the student/mentee, and in what capacity you worked with them. For example, if you supervised this person in a lab setting over a number of years, indicate this relationship and describe some of their responsibilities in your lab. This approach will allow you to transition into providing specific examples of some of your supervisee’s qualities that make them an attractive candidate.
  3. Show, don’t just tell. This is a common platitude in writing courses, and it applies to writing letters of recommendation, too. Provide some evidence and detail about your experiences with the student—is there a particular moment that encapsulates their work ethic, or their self-sufficiency, or their willingness to improve? Rather than just telling the application committee that this person has a strong work ethic, provide concrete examples of what that characteristic looked like in action.
  4. Make connections with the position for which the student is applying. This might require that you do a little digging—or better yet, ask your student to provide some specifics about the position and the qualities the committee members are looking for in an applicant. With this information, you can make some direct connections between the position and the qualities that make your student a good fit for the position. Also consider meeting with the student in order to better understand the position and/or application expectations.
  5. Be honest about your student’s work. This is sometimes the most challenging part of writing a letter of recommendation. We all want our students to be successful. Aim for tactfulness, and consider pairing perceived weaknesses with demonstrated strengths. Avoid hyperbolizing. Consider identifying how your student has an upward trajectory regarding their career or skill set. In other words, present your student as a “vector of success.”