Chapter 5: Sample Recommendation Letters


Action indeed is the sole medium of expression in ethics.
—Jane Addams

As a teacher, I know well the problems inherent in providing anything resembling a template. When I first began teaching resume writing, I wanted my students to have authentic resumes as models, so I gave them copies of resumes by former students with the names whited out. Inevitably, a few students turned in a resume sans any name at the top, thinking they were dutifully following the model. Next I took to using example resumes from a text, but the textbook included boxes around the resumes to resemble page edges, so some students handed in their resumes with boxes around them. Finally, I turned back to real student resumes with fictitious names, but one student actually handed in his resume using the fictitious name, explaining later that he liked the name better than his own. As a teacher, no matter my approach, it seemed I always managed to find a few students who were determined to surprise.

Though I trust that faculty need no such warnings against viewing exemplars as plug-in templates, I am compelled to explain why I provide sample letters here, and to note how I think samples can best be used. I’ve heard the comment from colleagues many times: “I write recommendation letters all the time, but I’m really not sure how good they are.” Just as frequently I hear faculty or graduate students say that they’ve been asked to write a letter for the first time, and they’d like to see some good models.

When studied thoughtfully, the 10 sample letters in this chapter reveal far more than how letters can be formatted pleasantly—they represent a range of stylistic choices, show how writers handle specific circumstances, prove that a strong letter from a grad student can be just as helpful as a letter from a tenured faculty member, demonstrate an effective use of jargon, include the kinds of quantitative and qualitative examples that selection committees crave, and provide interesting narratives that bring individual students to life.

I urge you to use these sample letters, and others provided through the links below, to study the art of letter writing, and strive to outdo the samples.

Further Study

Sample recommendation letters abound on the web. Here are two recommended sites with good sample letters:

“Sample Letters of Recommendation” page from the University of Michigan Press

"Annotated Sample Letter of Recommendation" from the Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL)

Sample Short Recommendation Letters

The five sample letters that follow, which you can download by clicking on the link below, are for circumstances where the candidate is seeking an internship or job, and therefore academics are not the focus.

In the first letter, written by a campus Red Cross Director, the author speaks to qualities about the student such as his ability to work with others, his creativity, leadership, and sensitivity. Since the student is being recommended for a career in public service, these examples—provided by someone who has witnessed the student’s work outside of the classroom—are highly appropriate.

The next three letters, written for students seeking internships or summer program positions, are all sensibly just one page, using examples from classrooms and labs to demonstrate potential. One letter notes the fact that the student has a 4.0 GPA, while another represents how the student handled herself in the presence of the president of the university. Another letter even represents honestly how the student has grown over time, citing the student’s struggle “to see her own potential earlier in her college career.” For those reading such letters and deciding on whether or not to hire and help advance a student’s training, such details are all equally interesting—academic success, maturity, and evidenced growth are all traits that employers embrace in those they hire.

The final letter in this set recommends a student for a job giving tours of animatronic displays.  Accordingly, the writer focuses on the student’s depth of knowledge in a relevant subject area and her communication skills. The writer also dares to be even more personal, noting that the student has “firm spiritual roots and an active, diverse, social life; she is loyal, committed, and clear-sighted.” Such personal detail tells us that the recommender knows the student well and admires her, and thus we trust the letter author and her endorsement.

Click here to download a pdf of five sample short recommendation letters.

Sample Teaching Recommendation Letters

Two recommendation letters for students going into the teaching profession, which you can download by clicking on the link below, demonstrate the traits that employers seek in teachers. When students have done student teaching in schools, at least one of their recommendation letters is written by the faculty supervisor of their student teaching program.

In the first letter, kept efficient at one page, the writer makes it clear that she knows the student not as a teacher but as a performer in her class who has kept in touch with her outside of the classroom. She uplifts the student by tracing their two-year history, and noting that the student attended a fiction reading that she gave. Most importantly, she shows that she can comfortably view the student as a teacher, citing his resume: “And I see this same ideal—one that he wants to pass on to his future students—even in the careful wording of his career objective on his resume, where he speaks of helping students achieve their ‘academic, athletic, and social potential.’” This letter demonstrates that even a writer with limited knowledge of the student’s work can write an effective letter by partnering with the student on the process.

The second letter, more extensive at two pages, comes from the student teaching supervisor, who also taught a concurrent course and web-based portfolio workshop in which the student was enrolled. Therefore, the examples provided come directly from these relevant experiences, and they go into a good deal of depth—citing lesson design, scientific principles taught, direct interactions with students, and use of technology. The letter is also filled with affirmations about the student as a future teacher: “He is thoughtful, reflective, and committed to life-long learning and continued development as an educator.” One of the final sentences both recommends the student and reminds readers of the relationship that the letter writer had with the student: “After evaluating his work, observing his performance in class, and supervising his teaching, I feel confident that Mr. Lerner will make a significant contribution as an elementary educator.”

Click here to download a pdf of two sample teaching recommendation letters.

Sample Graduate School Recommendation Letters

The three sample recommendation letters that follow, which you can download by clicking on the link below, are effective because they detail what makes the students stand out as exceptional and because they paint individual pictures of each student. Note how these excerpts, excerpted from each of the three letters, individualize and humanize the student:

“I have been especially impressed by Janet’s determination and sparkle.”

“I enthusiastically supported her application for the student position on the Mythic University Board of Trustees for the same reasons. She was the runner-up for that distinguished post, and Mythic University lost out on a true leader. But I believe her time is yet to come.”

“In short, John is both scholarly and culturally entrenched, ambitious but not pretentious, self-deprecating yet confident, forthright but unassuming, delightfully irreverent yet appropriately respectful—a complex and whole human being.”

In addition, the writers of these three letters take advantage of many of the rhetorical strategies discussed in Chapters 3 and 4 of this manual: enhancing their own credibility, narrative technique, anecdotal evidence, recommending by citing others, and using active verbs and transitions.

Finally, a late paragraph in the last letter, at the prompting of the graduate scholarship application, even provides a few criticisms of the student. Because these criticisms are offered even-handedly and efficiently, I would argue that the letter has even more ethos, and it is noteworthy that the student still landed the desired scholarship.

Click here to download a pdf of three sample graduate school recommendation letters.