Although most faculty can readily make their letters look good at a glance thanks to computer software and templates, many still puzzle through the fundamentals of appropriate length and overall form. The standards are well-established, as discussed below.
Length of the Letter
In one study that assessed over 500 letters of recommendation, results indicated that “the strength of the cooperative relationship between recommenders and applicants influenced the favorability and length of the letters” (1). Another study noted that “the more detail in the letter, the more persuasive” (2). In other words, a longer letter in the right circumstances gives favor to the candidate, as long as detail in the letter is relevant.
To determine the appropriate length for a letter, balance your knowledge of the student with the weight and opportunity of what the student is applying for. For instance, if the student is seeking a military position that you have little knowledge of and your evaluation form included a detailed checklist, your letter might be just one or two paragraphs long, efficiently endorsing the student within the context of the whole application. In most circumstances, however, your letter should fill a page neatly and perhaps go on to a second page. When students apply for graduate school or a national scholarship, two-page letters are the norm, and very short letters leave candidates at a clear disadvantage. As faculty who sit on review boards will confirm, letters of three pages or more are simply too lengthy (and often too full of irrelevant detail) for a selection committee to consider efficiently; pare them back.
Letterhead and Date
The letterhead should not be included on any pages except the first one, but be sure to number and perhaps date any subsequent pages in case they become separated. Many writers also provide an appropriate subject line at the top of any pages after the first one (e.g., “Letter of Reference for Janet Lerner—Page 2”).
Thanks to computer software, professional looking letterheads are easily generated, and many faculty use paper with a pre-printed letterheads for their first page. The best letterhead is that of the department, college, or other organization with which you are most closely affiliated. If you use some other letterhead, such as that of an inter-office memo or personal stationery, you have not clearly announced your connection to the student and you’ve weakened the letter’s suitability. If you attach a separate letter to a form, a letterhead is still appropriate. Date the letter two or so spaces beneath the letterhead at the left or right margin.
Address and Greeting
Some writers include the target employer’s or review committee’s address at the top left margin beneath the letterhead and date; others simply begin with a greeting directed to the name of the individual heading the group that will review your letter. Get the student to give you an actual name if possible. Archaic greetings such as “Dear Sir or Madam” should be avoided, but some writers still favor the generic “To Whom it May Concern.” If you do not have a person’s name to address the letter to, let the greeting reflect the circumstances to which the letter is tailored—e.g., “Dear Graduate School Selection Committee.”
Text Formatting and Paragraph Length
Font sizes of between 10 and 12 and standard publishing fonts such as Times New Roman and Century are preferred. The convention is to single-space your type, skip lines between each paragraph, and either consistently choose no indentation for paragraphs or indent each paragraph one-half inch. Preferably, keep your paragraphs reasonably short to enhance readability. For most circumstances, three to five paragraphs per page seems to be standard, but bulkier paragraphs are possible if introduced with sound topic sentences and with effective transitions imbedded.
Closing the Letter
Sign off with “Sincerely” or something similar, then put your handwritten signature beneath, then include your typed name and title on separate lines directly beneath. Your title connects you to the student directly and affirms your credibility and affiliation. Identify your full title (“Assistant Professor of Anthropology” rather than just “Assistant Professor”) and include more than one title where logical—if you chaired or advised an organization that the student was involved in, for example, you could include that title as well. Many writers include the initials of their degrees as well, and some writers include their phone number and e-mail address under their title to facilitate easy follow-up contact.
Matters of form for recommendation letters are discussed further at these websites: