How to Write a Letter of Recommendation

It’s that time of year. No, not just for New Year’s resolutions! It’s application season. And many applications–for graduate schools, summer internships, and fellowships–require letters of recommendation, sometimes referred to as LORs.

It is an honor to be asked to write an LOR, but you need to establish some ground rules and create a basic recommendation letter template to use as a starting point; otherwise, the deadlines could pile up, and there are futures on the line! No pressure.

First, you should only consent to write a LOR for someone you know and whose work or skills or personal integrity you can vouch for. If you feel you don’t know the applicant well enough, it is best to respond to their request quickly and with grace, simply stating that while you support their application, you don’t feel you are the right person to recommend them.

If you do know the applicant well and would feel comfortable writing for them, also respond quickly, say you would be delighted to recommend them, and ask what specific qualities they would like to make sure you highlight. You might also ask for links to websites and application materials that would help inform your letter. If the application website focuses on certain attributes–such as leadership, academic excellence, or grit–make sure you address those attributes in relation to your “recomendee.”

The letter template can start as a three paragraph structure that you can customize each time you write for a new person (don’t try to use the exact same letter for multiple people). In the first paragraph, explain why you are writing and whom you are writing in support of: “I am writing to recommend X for the Y program.” Then, explain how you know the applicant and in what context. And speaking of context, give your reader a sense of where the applicant stands among comparable individuals who have crossed your path, as this will give your words more weight: “I have worked with scores of undergraduate leaders over the years, but rarely have I encountered someone with Charlie’s capacity to inspire and mobilize others.”

In the middle paragraph, note two or three of  the applicant’s specific strengths and give examples of how you’ve seen them in action: “When we had our annual meeting, X supported the office at every turn, checking reservations for our 150 guests, ordering food from local vendors, and helping with both set up and clean up for the event. We couldn’t have had such a successful event without her hard work and enthusiasm.” You can credibly claim that someone is hardworking or that they “go above and beyond” or some other laudatory phrase only if you give evidence to support your claim.

In the final paragraph, draw a conclusion about the applicant’s fitness for the position. Indicate that you know what the position is and what the organization does; then connect the applicant directly to that: ” X’s attention to detail, dedication to her fellow students, and curiosity make her a wonderful candidate for this position. I am confident that she will help advance Y’s mission.” Then, end with a statement about what you think the candidate might contribute to the world: “X is a compassionate and thoughtful scholar. I expect her work to change the field of AI and to help us imagine the future.”

Finally, once the letter is written, unless the institution or program forbids it, offer to share the letter with the applicant to make sure you haven’t left out some important quality they would like to convey.

The LOR is important for the applicant, but it can also give you a boost, as you will be rewarded with sharing the joy of a mentee or colleague who has moved a little closer to fulfilling their dreams!