Writing Letters of Recommendation
Are you the right recommender? When the person
wanting to be recommended contacts you, do the following:
- Discuss whether you would be an appropriate person to supply the
recommendation. You should do this in as neutral but friendly way as
possible. See items "No" and "Yes" for tactics if you
think those labels are the answers to the question.
Often a request for a recommendation is made without
considering if the individual's letter would be effective. A common
mistake is asking someone too junior: assistant professors should not
make recommendations for tenure; usually theorists should not
recommend experimentalists, and vice versa; the recommender should be
known to at least one of the persons who will be making a judgement
based on the recommendation.
If you don't qualify as an effective
referee, explain why and counsel the individual in finding
If you can't write a positive letter? Try to escape being a references.
topics in the paragraph above may provide a way out.
Avoid telling the individual that you can't write a positive
letter. After all, your negative opinion may be based on incomplete
information. No one needs to be turned down roughly.
Do not promise you will write a letter with no intention
of doing so. This will only hurt both you and the individual in
- Yes. To assure your letter will be effective, find out who will
read your letter and read bullet below:
- Secure information you need to write an effective letter. Often
the official request for the letter (for example, in the case of a
tenure decision) will not provide all the information you need.
Ask the individual to send you the follow:
Vita. This should include a complete education and employment
history; concise descriptions of research achievement and plans; any
awards, honors or fellowship; if relevant, a description of teaching
and course development; if relevant, any service on college or national
committees; and other contributions such as editing journals.
List of publications. This should include complete titles, full
list of authors of each paper, and should distinguish between refereed
and unrefereed publications (i.e., most conferences papers).
Publications. Have the individual send you some current papers
and, in the case of tenure and award letters, papers of which the
individual is especially proud.
Who will read the letter? A tenure letter will be read by
every member of the department - those who know you and, more
importantly, those who don't. You must structure the letter so that it
makes arguments that anyone, even a dean or provost, can understand. It
should have the four items discussed below.
- Introduction. Explain in what way(s) you know the individual. Use
effective `short stories' that bring individual alive for readers of
- Answer the questions! If the letters asked specific questions,
answer them if you can. The trickiest question to answer is to to
rank the individual against others of similar qualifications. The best
institutions will give you a specific list. This question also tests
you; for example, if you don't know some of the persons on the list it
implies you are not an expert. You may need to do homework on the other
names. Generally a safe form of answer is one that explains the strong
points of the various named individuals.
- Evidence for your arguments. Don't say the individual's
work is outstanding; cite specific achievements in direct language,
understandable at the provost level.
- Conclusion. Finally summarize the positive arguments for
recommending the candidate for an assistant professorship, tenure or an
Beware weak endings. End the letter with the conclusion
above. Avoid writing some sentence at the end that mentions even a
potential weakness. It will be read as a warning that the real message
of the letter is: don't appoint, don't tenure or don't award.
Your letter is probably not confidential. Assume your
letter will be read by the person being recommended. Accordingly,
simply omit discussion of weak points; the omissions will be noted.
For the dangers of letter writing, see
Why you can't trust letters of
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Writing Letters of Recommendation
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