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Cornell University

Writing Letters of Recommendation

Writing Letters of Recommendation

As faculty members, you are frequently asked to provide a letter of recommendation for graduate and professional schools, scholarships, or job applications. Below are some tips and best practices. 

  1. Start preparing students early. Let students know very early on (e.g., early in a lecture course, early advising session) that they will end up wanting to get letters of recommendation, and so should think now about getting to know faculty, especially if the student is mostly taking large classes. 
  2. Consider whether to accept. Are you familiar with this student and their work? Could you provide a strong letter? If not, you might
    1. Inform the student you could write the letter based on your interactions but that since you only interacted X years ago or for X duration that they might consider asking someone who knows their work better.
    2. Inform the student that unfortunately you would be unable to provide them a strong letter. Briefly explain why and how to look for a suitable letter writer, even if that means that the student will have to start getting to know people.
    3. Please do not over-promise that you will be able to get the letter done on time.
  3. Provide the student direction. Direct the student to visit Canvas pre-grad or job application pages for what to provide you. There is a preview at the bottom of this page.
  4. Write the letter. It is not appropriate to ask a student to write their own letter of recommendation.  
    If you are referring to details from the student, try to be careful about copy and paste of emailed content from to avoid errors [E.g. "I did..." appearing in place of "He/She/They did..."]
    1. Letterhead: Use college letterhead. When submitting letters electronically, send PDF files of signed letters. When hard copies are requested, seal envelopes and sign them across the flap. 
    2. Length: It is typical and recommended to write only about things of which you have first-hand knowledge. The more specific the detail or examples, adds to the value of the letter, because that indicates the candidate is actually known to the writer. 
      Some letters might include succinct summaries of things you deem important or significant from the candidate’s CV, even if you do not have first-hand knowledge, but please recognize that the committees will receive the CV, so filling your letter with material from their CV dilutes your letter enormously. Of course, if there's something really significant that you want to draw attention to, even if you don't have direct knowledge of it, is absolutely fine if not overdone.
    3. Content: Samples on indeed.com. Some professors choose to include comparison statements. E.g. Candidate is Among the top X% of students …
    4. Proofread: Double-check the spelling of names, especially proper names, verify consistent use of the correct pronouns, and remember to sign and date your letter.
  5. Submit by the deadlines. Again, double check the student’s name and program name before submitting. A bonus would be to notify the student this task is complete. 

Additional Tips

Work Efficiently. Many faculty use templates. Make sure you have a clear naming convention and saving system. Keep an electronic copy of the letter. You may be asked to send out updated versions of your letter for a future application.  

Consider Cycles and Destinations. Recognize that if you typically send out letters for multiple candidates using the same template, the recipients will become used to your letters. Try to have the material relevant to the candidate not overly buried inside your templated material. Additionally, avoid contradicting yourself (e.g., claiming that more than one student was the "best" research assistant/TA you've had that year) especially when submitting to the same destination (e.g. medical schools). The letter readers will notice and it can undermine the goal of the letter.

Co-Signing Letters. If you are collaborating with another person (e.g., a graduate student that has more frequent contact, another coworker or faculty) make sure you have a clear understanding of who is going to write which part(s) of the letter and who will formally submit it. Even if others are not co-signing the letter, it is okay to include positive feedback second-hand in your letter when attributed.  

Writing Letters for Medical School Applicants. Highlight the AAMC Core Competencies for Entering Medical Students and provide specific examples of how you have seen the student demonstrate competencies you have observed. Please do not feel pressured to give a checking off of items from this list of 'competencies', and even be cautious of phrases like ".... and so demonstrated their competency in X". Far better to skim through that list and note if you have seen any of them displayed prominently by the candidate. Additionally, refer students to the Health Careers Advising Application Preparation Process (HCA-APP) Canvas course for a comprehensive overview page on Letters of Recommendation (LORs) in Module 1 (Readiness). Most LORs for medical school are submitted to the Health Careers Evaluation Committee (HCEC), although occasionally a letter is submitted directly to an application service.The HCEC asks our registrants to send their letter writers a document titled, “LOR Guidelines and FERPA Intent Form.” This 2-page document includes a letter from HCEC Chair explaining what medical schools like to read in an LOR. On page two, the document provides direction on how to send the LOR to the HCEC and includes the FERPA Intent Form to indicate whether the applicant waived or retained their right of access to the letter. 

Writing Letters for Law School Applicants. You will be submitting through LSAC’s Letter of Recommendation Service. 

Avoid Oversharing. 
Do not comment on a student’s appearance, family background, religion, health, or other personal circumstances, unless they are immediately relevant to the application and the student has given you explicit permission. There may be situations where you might know of issues which could be relevant to the candidate's application, so if you felt comfortable talking about them with the student, it might be appropriate to find out it they would be (a) comfortable (b) willing for you to discuss those issues in your letter. 

A Note on Sharing. Students frequently waive their right to view the letter. Occasionally faculty may choose to share a snippet of positive feedback directly with the student or statement (e.g., “I was able to write a very positive letter speaking to your leadership skills”). This can go a long way in adding to a student’s confidence. Keep in mind that sharing an entire letter compromises the confidentiality, and could put the applicant in an awkward position if asked about content from a waived letter.

Confidential Letters. Some students establish a credentials file, which is a repository for letters of recommendation and other documents. Keep in mind that generalized letters of recommendation, such as those sometimes written for credentials files, are not as effective as those composed by a writer with a specific field of study in mind. For more information on maintaining letters, visit Interfolio.com.

Resources. “Writing Recommendation Letters” by Joe Schall. It includes sample letters for jobs, graduate schools, and major fellowships.
 

For Students: Informing your Recommenders
As you line up two or three suitably enthusiastic recommenders, make appointments to talk with them. During the appointments be prepared to make available recommendation forms provided; be sure to provide very specific information for online submissions for the writers' convenience. Talk with the writer about your academic and professional goals and why you are applying to certain programs to help them prepare a substantive letter to support your candidacy. Make sure writers know when your application deadlines fall. 
Be polite and courteous. You might be surprised how much that recommender has to do outside your class, even during your crunch times. Also, if they typically teach large classes, they may have close to a hundred requests for letters all due at the same time!

Supporting Documents
We suggest students provide faculty recommenders with:
1. Updated resume/CV.
2. Draft of application essay (if applicable)
3. List of programs applying for (Include links and deadlines; Clarify anything to emphasize about specific programs; add logistical details e.g., "You will receive an automatic e-mail from the application portal committee within a week."). 
4. Try to make it easy for the writer, they will probably have many other letters to write, so may well not have time to follow links and extract information about programs -- lay it out easily and succinctly for them.
5. A summary of how you know the recommender e.g., courses taken (code, semester, and grades received).
6. Research papers you wrote, or other work products.