Letters of Recommendation
Instructions and support resources for students (who are requesting letters) and faculty (who are responding to requests).
Occasionally, students require letters for graduate programs and applications to special opportunities. An effective letter of recommendation provides a portrait of who you are beyond your college grades or entrance exam scores. Admissions committees rely on letter of recommendations not only to validate what you have written in your application, but also to gather information about your personality, character, and motivation for your chosen field. Note: The guidance here replicates content from Harvard FAS Career Services.
Before approaching faculty for letters of recommendation, reflect on how these letters can strengthen your application.
- List the qualities that the graduate program is looking for in an applicant. To get a sense of what an employer or graduate school is looking for in a candidate, think about who succeeds in the program or job you are seeking.
- Who can positively comment on these relevant personal qualities?
- If you need to provide several letters of recommendation, consider how each letter can fill different needs and request letters from individuals who know you in different contexts and can comment on different strengths.
- What would you like someone to include/address in the letter that may be missing in the rest of your application? Who can comment on your professional behavior? Your maturity? Did you take a particularly challenging sequence of courses that is not necessarily obvious from your transcript? Are there extenuating circumstances that might account for atypical grades?
- Decide whether you want to waive your right to see the letter of recommendation. For most employers and graduate programs, confidential letters have greater credibility and are assigned greater weight in the application process. Interestingly, many letter writers are less inhibited in praising an applicant when the letter is confidential!
- Allow plenty of “turnaround time.” Be sure the letter writer has the opportunity to write a thoughtful, complete letter without worrying about an unrealistic deadline.
After deciding which individuals can provide the most positive and complete picture of your relevant skills, experiences, and character traits, communicate with each of the potential writers.
- Ask the letter writer if they feel comfortable writing a letter to support your application. If they seem hesitant or ambivalent, thank them for their time but do not request a letter from this individual. It is crucial that the person writing your letter is positive about your application and conveys that in their letter. If a letter is lukewarm or negative, it can reflect poorly on your ability to judge how you appear to others as well as give the employer or graduate program feedback that you did not intend to convey.
- The letter of recommendation will be especially effective if the writers describe specific examples and instances whenever possible. So, provide each letter writer with information relevant to your experience and application. This could be a resume, a personal statement, a reminder of particular incidents or discussions, etc. Spend some time discussing with the letter writer how this information relates to your application.
Don't forget to thank the person writing your letter by sending a thank-you note! Let them know the outcome of your application! Not only could their letter make the difference in whether or not you are accepted, you most likely will want to ask for letters again in the future.
The guidelines are intended to enhance the letter-writing process by providing a general framework of best practices and relevant content for letter writers to follow. Student success takes many forms, and these letter-writing scaffolds are meant to support placement success. Before you start ensure that the student has consulted. Note: The guidance here replicates original content created by the AAMC.
- Provide an accurate assessment of the applicant’s suitability for the given program rather than advocate for the applicant.
- Briefly explain your relationship with the applicant:
- How long have you known the applicant?
- In what capacity have you interacted (e.g., faculty, advisor, supervisor)?
- Are your observations of the applicant direct or indirect?
- Quality of information is more important than letter length.
- Focus on the applicant rather than details of the lab, course, assignment, job, or institution
- Only include information on grades, GPA, ACTFL, or GRE scores if you also provide context to help interpret them. Grades, GPA, ACTFL, and GRE scores are available within the application.
- Focus on behaviors you have observed directly when describing an applicant’s suitability for graduate school. Consider describing:
- The situation or context of the behaviors.
- The actual behaviors you observed.
- Any consequences of the behaviors.
- Ask the applicant for permission if you plan to include any information that could be considered potentially private or sensitive.
- Consider including unique contributions that an applicant would bring to a graduate cohort:
- Obstacles that the applicant had to overcome and how those obstacles have led to new learning and growth.
- Contributions that an applicant would bring to a medical school’s diversity, broadly defined (e.g., background, attributes, experiences).
- Committees find comparison information helpful. If you make comparisons, be sure to provide context. Include information about the comparison group (e.g., students in a class you taught, students in your department, co-workers) and tour rationale for the comparison.
Describe how the applicant has, or has not, demonstrated any of the following competencies that are necessary for success in graduate school.
- Critical Thinking: Uses logic and reasoning to identify the strengths and weaknesses of alternative solutions, conclusions, or approaches to problems.
- Quantitative Reasoning: Applies quantitative reasoning and appropriate data to describe or explain phenomena.
- Research Inquiry: Applies knowledge of the investigative process to integrate and synthesize information, solve problems, and formulate research questions and hypotheses. Is facile in the language of the target field sciences and uses it to participate in the discourse of the discipline and explain how scientific knowledge is discovered and validated.
- Written Communication: Effectively conveys information to others using written words and sentences.
- Social Skills: Demonstrates awareness of others’ needs, goals, feelings, and the ways social and behavioral cues affect peoples’ interactions and behaviors. Adjusts behaviors appropriately in response to these cues. Treats others with respect.
- Cultural Competence: Demonstrates knowledge of social and cultural factors that affect interactions and behaviors. Shows an appreciation and respect for multiple dimensions of diversity. Recognizes and acts on the obligation to inform one’s own judgment. Engages diverse and competing perspectives as a resource for learning, citizenship, and work. Recognizes and appropriately addresses bias in themselves and others. Interacts effectively with people from diverse backgrounds.
- Teamwork: Works collaboratively with others to achieve shared goals. Shares information and knowledge with others and provides feedback. Puts team goals ahead of individual goals.
- Oral Communication: Effectively conveys information to others using spoken words and sentences. Listens effectively. Recognizes potential communication barriers and adjusts approach or clarifies information as needed.
- Ethical Responsibility to Self and Others: Behaves in an honest and ethical manner. Cultivates personal and academic integrity. Adheres to ethical principles and follows rules and procedures. Resists peer pressure to engage in unethical behavior and encourages others to behave in honest and ethical ways. Develops and demonstrates ethical and moral reasoning.
- Reliability and Dependability: Consistently fulfills obligations in a timely and satisfactory manner. Takes responsibility for personal actions and performance.
- Resilience and Adaptability: Demonstrates tolerance of stressful or changing environments or situations and adapts effectively to them. Is persistent, even under difficult situations. Recovers from setbacks.
- Capacity for Improvement: Sets goals for continuous improvement and for learning new concepts and skills. Engages in reflective practice for improvement. Solicits and responds appropriately to feedback.