Writing Letters of Recommendation

Are you the right recommender? When the person wanting to be recommended contacts you, do the following:

Who will read the letter? A tenure letter will be read by every member of the department - those who know you and, more importantly, those who don't. You must structure the letter so that it makes arguments that anyone, even a dean or provost, can understand. It should have the four items discussed below.

  1. Introduction. Explain in what way(s) you know the individual. Use effective `short stories' that bring individual alive for readers of the letter.
  2. Answer the questions! If the letters asked specific questions, answer them if you can. The trickiest question to answer is to to rank the individual against others of similar qualifications. The best institutions will give you a specific list. This question also tests you; for example, if you don't know some of the persons on the list it implies you are not an expert. You may need to do homework on the other names. Generally a safe form of answer is one that explains the strong points of the various named individuals.
  3. Evidence for your arguments. Don't say the individual's work is outstanding; cite specific achievements in direct language, understandable at the provost level.
  4. Conclusion. Finally summarize the positive arguments for recommending the candidate for an assistant professorship, tenure or an award.

Beware weak endings. End the letter with the conclusion above. Avoid writing some sentence at the end that mentions even a potential weakness. It will be read as a warning that the real message of the letter is: don't appoint, don't tenure or don't award.

Your letter is probably not confidential. Assume your letter will be read by the person being recommended. Accordingly, simply omit discussion of weak points; the omissions will be noted. For the dangers of letter writing, see Why you can't trust letters of recommendations.

To cite this page:
Writing Letters of Recommendation
Edited by: wilkins@mps.ohio-state.edu on