One of the greatest challenges for many faculty writing letters of reference is how to generate effective detail. The answer to this challenge usually involves getting to know the student better, matching persuasive examples and evidence to the appropriate criteria, and understanding the common expectations readers have about detail.
Partnering with the Student on the Process
Some faculty require no help from the student in preparing a letter and don’t feel they should involve the student directly, but most ask for the student’s input, using it as a way to generate detail. Some faculty even advocate that the student begin the process by drafting a letter for them to work from. Even if that particular approach doesn't suit you, some form of partnership with the student in the process can be mutually beneficial.
Common ways that faculty partner with students to generate letter detail include:
- asking students for copies of relevant application materials, looking for clues about the audience needs.
- reviewing a copy of the student’s resume, a writing sample, a written proposal, a graded paper, or a list of achievements.
- asking for a copy of the student’s transcript, so that you can put his or her academic performance into perspective.
- interviewing students, in person or by-email, asking questions such as why they want a particular job or entrance into a program, what their long-term goals are, where their strengths and weaknesses lie, how they view their chosen profession, and what circumstances brought them to their current career path—then including this detail in the letter.
At a minimum, most faculty at least review a student’s resume to help generate detail for their letter, which also helps students to view themselves as professionals.
One example from a faculty member at North Seattle College represents the above approach perfectly. In her Process for Getting a Recommendation Letter page, this faculty member spells out her protocol to her students, attending to everything from practical materials that she needs to write the letter to reminding the student to follow up with her. Such an approach helps students to understand the process and uplifts it to something closer to an appropriately professional partnership between mentor and mentee.
Giving Context to Your Relationship with the Student
Employers and committees are always interested in how you came to know and how long you have known a student, and many writers open their letters by directly stating this. Especially if you teach an upper-level course or run a lab or program, it can be effective to describe succinctly the curriculum or the exact nature of the class or work, including the types of students involved, texts studied, or goals and initiatives. Curriculum detail or a description of a student’s work community can also provide a handy segue for you to compare the student to others.
Despite the need to establish your relationship with the student, you must leave the reader with a strong impression that your ultimate connection to the student is a professional one. Beware of overstating your relationship, presenting it as too emotional or overly personal, or worse, puzzling through it right on the page.
Enhancing Your Own Credibility
This can be a tricky matter and it is sometimes best left alone, but subtly or directly enhancing your credibility can greatly aid a student if the circumstances warrant. For instance, if you are a professional engineer and the student also aims to be one eventually, citing your background briefly in connection with the student’s potential will certainly uplift the student. Likewise, if you’ve been teaching for thirty years and this student is among the top ten you have had in your classes, when you mention both of these facts you catapult the student in the audience’s estimation. Clearly, you do not wish to risk discussing your credentials in too much detail or for no apparent reason. Be selective and restrained, focusing principally on the student’s background and connection to yours.
Using Language That Reflects the Appropriate Criteria
When matching a student’s abilities to specific criteria, there is, of course, the danger of just lifting the criteria from a form and plugging in the student’s name alongside them: “I feel that [insert student name here] has strong analytical skills, emotional stability, maturity, and motivation.” Instead, use the language of the criteria, perhaps even by grounding your topic sentences in the diction, and apply the criteria directly to your experiences with the student. Thus: “John’s analytical skills have surfaced clearly in both his writing and his senior project.”
Providing Examples and Evidence
A letter of recommendation lives or dies on its examples and evidence. Not surprisingly, research shows that the specificity of the examples used in a letter enhances the perceived credibility of the writer, in some cases even more so than numerical data (1). Among the best ways to present concrete examples about student’s accomplishments are:
- compare the student to others, especially peers, graduate students, or professionals;
- comment on the student’s role in your classroom dynamic;
- quote from a paper the student wrote or otherwise interpret the student’s qualitative work;
- detail what your colleagues think of the student;
- discuss the student’s contribution to a team or in a lab setting, including a brief discussion of the team goals or research hypotheses;
- describe the student’s self-assessment of accomplishments, if known, and compare it to your own assessment of the student’s abilities;
- discuss your student’s favorable contribution to the recommendation letter or application process itself, highlighting evidence of professionalism;
- offer the student’s grade, academic record, or other types of quantitative measures used for evaluation (note the “Recommendation Letters and the Law” section in Chapter 1).
Be especially careful when using data in relation to student evaluation. Letter writers sometimes make claims such as “This student is in the top 5% of the nation’s graduates” without evidence to back it up, and thus the claim loses credibility. Also, beware of providing too much quantitative data about a student or appearing to have simply retreated to your grade book or attendance records to define a student’s academic character. Grades are good evidence, but only briefly—especially when letter readers possess the student’s transcript anyway. Emphasize virtues not apparent from a transcript.
Finally, amidst your specific examples, keep in mind that letter writers should also give attention to, as one educator puts it, “some general qualities employers would like to see in a candidate” (2). Tie your examples directly to traits and qualities that employers and grad schools seek, such as initiative, aptitude, trainability, willingness to learn, enthusiasm, leadership, self-motivation, intelligence, adaptability, imagination, and communication skills.
The following websites offer more advice about generating detail in recommendation letters: