How to Write a Recommendation Letter—and How to Ask for One

Even as graduate assistants, those in the sciences often are asked to write recommendation letters for undergraduate students. Later, scientists also receive requests for recommendation letters for graduate students, postdoc­toral fellows, and peers. Writing recommendation letters can consume much time. However, with a well-organized approach, you can efficiently write good recommendation letters, thus serving qualified candidates well while conserv­ing your time. Likewise, with a well-considered approach, you can consider­ately and effectively obtain recommendation letters when you need them for yourself.

1. DECIDING WHETHER TO WRITE THE LETTER

A request to write a recommendation letter is just that: a request. Thus, you can decline. If you cannot honestly provide a favorable assessment, or if you cannot complete the letter by the deadline, promptly decline the request, so the requester can seek another recommender. When you cannot provide a favor­able recommendation, a tactful statement such as “I think someone who knows you better could write a more convincing recommendation” may send the requester seeking a letter from someone else. If the requester persists, blunter wording may be needed.

If you know requesters fairly well and think they may be seeking opportu­nities poorly suited to them, consider meeting to discuss the decision. The requester may provide information that will change your mind and help you to write a more persuasive letter. Or you may find that the requester agrees with you but feels pressured to seek the opportunity. (“I’d rather do field research, but my family has always wanted me to become a physician” or “I thought I’d be letting you down if I didn’t seek the summer fellowship.”) With you as an ally, the requester can then better pursue his or her best interests.

Requesters cannot reasonably expect you to write recommendation letters immediately. If you tend to receive many requests for recommendation letters, consider letting it be known how much notice you generally need.

If there are people for whom you would be especially pleased to write let­ters, tell them. Doing so can relieve them of needless stress and help ensure that well-qualified candidates receive strong recommendations.

2. GATHERING THE INFORMATION

In preparing a recommendation letter as in writing a scientific paper, prelimi­naries include obtaining instructions, gathering materials, collecting data, and familiarizing yourself with examples.

As well as finding out when the recommendation is due and how to submit it, gather materials that are needed or would be useful. These may include a recommendation form to complete (if an electronic link to one has not been provided), a description of the opportunity or honor for which the candidate is being recommended, a resume or curriculum vitae of the candidate, and exam­ples of the candidate’s work. They may also include items from your files, such as grade lists from your courses and previous letters you have written on the applicant’s behalf. If the candidate is to have filled out part of a recommenda­tion form, check that he or she has done so completely.

Norms regarding content and length of recommendation letters can differ among fields and cultures. Therefore, if you have not seen recommenda­tion letters of the type you are to write, try to obtain some examples. Senior colleagues in your field may be able to show you some recommendation letters they have written, or they may offer feedback on a draft. If you serve on selection committees, you may see many such letters and gain a sense of the norm.

3. WRITING THE LETTER(S)

Having a usual format to follow can facilitate writing recommendation letters, just as it can aid in preparing a scientific paper. Here is one format that often works well:

In the first paragraph, indicate who is being recommended for what. An example of such a paragraph, which often runs only one sentence, is the following: “I am very pleased to recommend [name of candidate], a senior at [name of university], for admission to the graduate program in [name of field] at [name of university].” Placing the candidate’s name in boldface can help recip­ients quickly see who is being recommended and file the letter appropriately.

In the next paragraph, say how you know the candidate. An example: “I have known Ms. [surname of applicant] for more than a year. As a junior, she took my course . She also has worked in my laboratory since June through our university’s undergraduate research program.”

Then, in the following paragraph or two, provide your assessment of the candidate. Try to be specific. For example, rather than saying only that a candi­date is an excellent student, specify the student’s achievements, and perhaps rank the student relative to others. If applicable, note the candidate’s academic or professional strengths and his or her relevant personal traits. Of course, gear what you say to what the person is being recommended for.

In the final paragraph, sum up. For example, you might write: “In sum, I consider Mr. [surname of applicant] an outstanding candidate for [name of opportunity]. I recommend him with enthusiasm.” After a standard closing such as “Sincerely,” Sincerely yours,” or “Yours truly,” sign your name. Your name and your professional title, such as assistant professor of [name of field], should appear under your signature. Normally, the letter should appear on offi­cial letterhead.

Sometimes a candidate may request several recommendations, for instance for graduate school or jobs. To be efficient, try to prepare all, or several, of the recommendations at once. Although, for example, different graduate programs may have different recommendation forms to complete, preparing the recom­mendations as a batch generally saves time. When there are forms, you may have the option of either writing your comments on them or attaching letters. If you already are writing a recommendation letter for a candidate, or if you are completing multiple recommendations for him or her, the latter option tends to be faster.

Especially if you think the candidate may later ask you to provide additional recommendations, keep copies of completed recommendation forms and save at least electronic files of recommendation letters. Preparing additional rec­ommendations for the candidate should then be relatively quick and simple.

4. A LIGHT ASIDE

With regard to letters of recommendation, concern sometimes has existed that “the candidate may later exercise the legal right to read the letter, and perhaps even sue if the contents are not to his liking and are insufficiently substanti­ated.” To address this concern, a professor at Lehigh University has devised a “Lexicon of Inconspicuously Ambiguous Recommendations, or LIAR” (Thorn­ton 1987). An example: “To describe a candidate who is not particularly indus­trious: ‘In my opinion you will be very fortunate to get this person to work for you.’ ” Further examples along these lines appear in the book L.I.A.R: The Lexi­con of Intentionally Ambiguous Recommendations (Thornton 2003).

5. IF YOU’RE SEEKING RECOMMENDATION LETTERS

What if you are seeking recommendation letters? The tips below—which follow largely from the advice above—can help you obtain them effectively and considerately.

Scientists and others providing recommendation letters generally are busy. Therefore, if possible, approach them well in advance. At a minimum, try to provide 2 weeks to write the letter. If you are asking for several recommenda­tions, ideally provide at least 4 to 6 weeks.

If you think the potential recommender might not remember you at first, try to jog the person’s memory. For example, if approaching the person by email, perhaps attach a photo of yourself. Or provide other identifying information, such as the topic on which you prepared a presentation.

Gauge the recipient’s reaction to the request. If the person seems glad to write the recommendation, promptly provide the information needed to do so. But if he or she seems hesitant or is slow to reply, ask whether finding another recommender might be wise. You may save yourself from an awkward situa­tion or a late or lukewarm recommendation.

Supply, in an organized way, items required to prepare the recommenda­tion^) well. Such items may include, in addition to needed forms, your cur­riculum vitae or resume, descriptions of programs to which you are applying, and samples of your work.

Recommenders sometimes tell you, by email or otherwise, when the rec­ommendations go out. If you do not hear, a polite inquiry a few days before the deadline can be appropriate.

Follow up on the recommendation. Thank the recommender, at least by email; especially if someone has written multiple recommendations, a thank- you card can be nice. When you gain your objective, inform the recommender. For instance, say where you will attend graduate school or embark on a job— and thank the recommender again.

In short, treat recommenders as you would wish to be treated in such roles. With luck, you will indeed be treated the same way.

Source: Gastel Barbara, Day Robert A. (2016), How to Write and Publish a Scientific Paper, Greenwood; 8th edition.

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