Writing Recommendation Letters Online


Common Stylistic Strategies


Formalities and Generic Phrases

Though some writers overuse them, formalities and generic phrases do have a place in the convention of letters of reference. Here are a few of the most popular:

Ms. Janet Lerner has asked for my recommendation, and I am most happy to give it.

I recommend him highly and without reservation.

Such phrases, often “bookending” the body of the letter, do no harm, but at the same time they are used so often that they become invisible and meaningless as well. A more creative and meaningful approach is to use sentences of more substance that fit the circumstances and the student directly. As examples, note two sentences that are used to end sample recommendation letters in Chapter 5:

I think he would be an excellent REU candidate, and I enthusiastically endorse his application.

She will be a rare catch for any graduate school, and I will watch her career develop with great interest and high expectations.

Such personalized endorsements represent the student more emphatically, with more style, and perhaps more credibly, than any generic line can.

The Role of Jargon and Informalities

Specialized vocabulary in a letter—assuming it’s clear in context, not overused, and audience-appropriate—can boost a letter’s impact, enhancing the writer’s credibility and lending the student’s work more value. Often, proper context has to be created for the jargon, and it’s most likely to be used within sentences where examples are provided. Considering just the example letters in Chapter 5, the recommendations written by scientists are more powerful because they comment on a student’s facility with nano-indentation techniques or mastery of quantitative RT-PCR, helping readers view the students being recommended as researchers.

Informal, anecdotal examples, colloquialisms, and even slang—used with discretion and restraint—can also help the reader feel a connection with both letter writer and the student. Again drawing from sample letters in Chapter 5, we hear of a student’s “excellent lab hands,” we find a professor noting that she competes with her student on the squash court, we are given examples of a student’s quirky and sardonic humor, and we even find a faculty member in a teaching job recommendation using an exclamation point. Such informal snapshots have the impact of helping us to know the student better, and prove that the writer knows well and genuinely admires the student.

Using Narrative

Using narrative can help you organize and help bring forth the student’s distinctiveness. Effective paragraphs often open with some narrative that sets a scene—“In the fall of 2009” or “I recall the time that William first came to my office to discuss. . . .”  Likewise, you might use narrative to underscore a student’s growth: “Our next contact was when Megan enrolled in my senior-level Logistics class, where I was delighted to discover her more matured perceptions on. . . .”

Some writers go so far as to open their letter with a brief narrative as a way to capture audience attention. Note this example excerpted from a letter in Chapter 5:

Perhaps the most memorable discussion I’ve ever had with a student about his decision to switch majors was three years ago. The student was a first-year Polymer Science and Engineering major on a scholarship, taking my introductory film class as an elective, and he told me he was considering a switch to Film. Assuming that this student was simply running into typical academic problems in first-year chemistry and physics courses, I asked how those courses were going. “Oh, I’m getting As in those,” he assured me with a calm wave of his hand. “But I long to study Film.” That student was John Lerner.

Beware of overuse or digressive use of narrative. Use it selectively to enhance the letter’s readability and show growth and change over the student’s career.

Striking the Right Tone

An ideal tone is one that suggests warm familiarity with and confidence in a student—the implication is that you approve of the student as a person and take the student seriously. Some ideas for fostering such a tone are:

  • after the initial formal introduction, refer to the student by first name;
  • narrate a personal interaction that took place in your office or elsewhere;
  • recall your first impressions of the student, then contrast these with later ones;
  • present intriguing asides such as spontaneous discussions or shared interests or backgrounds;
  • describe the student’s specific contribution to your relationship;
  • supply information demonstrating that you and the student have discussed career plans or graduate school.

Avoid such tonal extremes as referring to the student by last name only or excessively glorifying the student. A letter that becomes too flattering about the student or too personal in detail might actually do more harm than good.

Managing Persona

A touchy subject, this. We all develop particular habits as writers and often cling to them tenaciously, and when writing a letter we might think that we should produce a document either stripped of personality or one that is so personal in voice that it’s full of idiosyncrasy. Given that the persona one adopts in a letter can influence the reader’s opinion of the candidate highly, the prudent choice is to think about the student’s needs and the reader’s needs as primary and directive.

The writer’s persona should be a natural yet subdued part of any professional letter of recommendation. In an effort to add flair, it may be tempting to make clever parenthetical comments, digress, or even provide so much nifty narration that the student’s accomplishments get buried in a needlessly nimble plot. Conversely, some writers make the mistake of adopting such a clinical or artificially genteel manner that the letter might seem to have been written by a robot or a polished butler. Consider how dispassionate an employer or selection committee can become about a candidate when put off by the letter writer’s persona. I’ve been on selection committees where the members were openly judgmental of and distracted by the letter writer’s style, and thus the focus became on the writer’s quirks rather than the candidate’s strengths.

The bottom line is that your voice should suit the situation first and you second. Write with a persona that will humanize both you and the student, but keep the focus positively on the student, not on yourself or on the letter itself.