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