How To Write Your Own Grad School Recommendation Letter

grad school recommendation letter

NOTE: Forging, altering, or otherwise fabricating letters of recommendation is a criminal offense. Under no circumstances should you submit a letter of recommendation under someone else’s name without their expressed permission. If you are having difficulty coming up with three letters of recommendation, read through our tips on how to get additional letters.

This post is for all the applicants who have asked for information on how to write a grad school recommendation letter. A lot of them are the subjects of awful letters that led to a rejection, ultimately looking to be more involved with their professors in the process next time around (and hopefully improve their chances).  Others have been asked to write a draft of their own recommendation letter by a professor. Still others have been asked to actually write the entire thing by lazy recommenders (it happens more often than you’d think).
Regardless of the circumstances surrounding it, writing a grad school recommendation letter is really an art form, especially considering the major role these letters play in every student’s career. To applicants who shrug off the importance of a grad school recommendation letter, often thinking they’re never actually read—think again. They are taken very, very seriously. They’re pored over, deconstructed, and discussed. Admissions committees trust other professors more than they trust you or standardized test scores, so a grad school recommendation letter can make or break a students academic career.

 

So, how do you write your own grad school recommendation letter?

 

These suggestions regard general format and structure, and we assume you’re already fairly familiar with the goals of a grad school recommendation letter. If you’re just starting out, were asked to write your own letter, or aren’t sure how to ask someone for a grad school recommendation letter, it’s a good idea to read through these posts first:

How To Get An Amazing Letter of Recommendation

Grad School Without Letters of Recommendation?

Who To Ask For A Letter of Recommendation?

Let’s first look at paragraph structure, keeping in mind these are just suggestions. Obviously each recommendation letter needs to be tailored and personalized in excruciating detail.
(1) A generic opening that shows excitement and enthusiasm “I am pleased to write this recommendation letter on behalf of xxxx.” This is immediately followed by explanation of who writer is, how they know the applicant, in what capacities, for how long, and why they’re qualified to write a recommendation. “I advised XXX for over two years, working side by side with them on several project. I’m currently department chair of the applied mathematics, and have advised and graduated over two dozen graduate students since working at XXX University, leaving me more than qualified to speak to XXX’s potential.” General comparison of the applicant to others in the field and their peer group is also a good idea. “XXX is among the very top X% of undergraduate students I’ve worked with, and promises to….”
(2) Detailed description of research experience or classwork performance. Describe the topics covered and technical skills the applicant learned, but more importantly, provide context for how this prepared them for success in graduate school.  The most important thing a letter can do is detail why an applicant has a promising career in research (with specifics, not generalities).
(3) A quick discussion of the applicants maturity and the complexity of their research project (or coursework). Effective letters reassure admissions committees that a thesis or summer project had substantial intellectual merit, even if they didn’t get a publication out of it. Details about work ethic, productivity, and fortitude are valuable here. If relevant, it’s also a good idea to itemize various technical skills that have been acquired. The point is to describe the applicant (you) as a soon-to-be graduate student, not as an undergrad student still trying to figure things out.
(4) Add evidence broad activity engagement —awards, honors, extracurriculars, personal projects, and conference activity if applicable.
(5) A brief write up of future research goals, so that admissions committees feel reassured that the applicant has discussed a long-term plan with professors already, and knows what they’re getting into and why.
(6) If applicable add discipline-specific benefits, such as experience in a country of interest, language fluency, technical or programming skills, etc. For example, even if the recommender never utilized your ability to speak Russian, that doesn’t mean it isn’t potentially useful for your graduate studies in mathematics. A brief mention of these extra skills by a recommender is a good idea–it adds weight and verification.
(7) Description of teaching abilities, teamwork, community involvement. If you’ve TA’d a class, mention the course name, overview of material covered, and methods used.  Awards given for teaching, community or departmental involvement can be mentioned. In fact, any and all awards should be pointed out by the recommender if possible. Not to say there should be an itemize list, that’s what the CV is for, but substantial honors should be highlighted.
(8) General involvement, in school and otherwise. Did you create a new extracurricular program? Volunteer for a diversity committee? Demonstrated community involvement, commitment, and knowledge of administrative responsibilities are all good points to mention. One problem many graduate communities have is a lack of engagement outside research. Showing that an applicant is likely to contribute to the graduate community, is a nice bonus point.
(9) Brief remarks about character and personality, as long as it relates to research oriented work. Attributes like resourcefulness, responsibility, good humor, organization, energy, etc. For female applicants avoid: nice, selfless, giving, caring, bubbly, sweet, warm, nurturing, maternal, etc.
“In summary, I expect XXX to have a very successful graduate career, and give him/her my unqualified recommendation. Please don’t hesitate to contact me at [phone number and/or email address] if you should require any additional information.”

 

 

Nuts and Bolts

> At least one single spaced full page in length and not more than two full pages
> Written on university letterhead (THIS IS IMPORTANT)
> It will not gush or wax emotional
> Provide evidence and substance only
> Do not rely on cheap adjectives (incredible, motivated, passionate, remarkable, extraordinary, amazing, etc.)
> It will never damn the applicant with faint praise (“XX is one of the better students we’ve had in the department”)
> It will emphasize depictions of the candidate as a graduate student
> It will include wider context, providing a complete view of the candidate’s accomplishments while still emphasizing specific experiences
> It will provide specific examples about research, methods, teaching, or service–not vague generalities
> It will be exclusively  positive.  Any writer who cannot be 100% positive about the applicant should not write a letter. In the event that you fear your recommender is ambivalent, it’s best to either get another recommender or ensure they’re ok with what you wrote before committing to that professor.  A tactful way to give them an easy out is to say “If you don’t feel you know my record well enough support this letter, I will understand.”

 

When applicants write their own letters it’s important to remember to stay factual and not emotional.
Now, some of you will wonder where the warmth comes from if you’re not allowed to get emotional. Indeed, warmth is necessary for an effective letter. But in reality, the warmth comes through the most when you use detail instead of a lot of cheap adjectives. Any writer who can speak with great care, thoroughness, and respect about a student’s achievements is demonstrating support of that student. Extra efforts to “sound sincere” just end up muddying the message and in the case of female candidates, overly-gendering the profile in ways that do not work to a woman’s benefit.
Bonus tip for European, Asian and other international students applying to the United States: LoR Warning to European Students
If you have any additional questions, please comment below!

 

 

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How To Write Your Own Grad School Recommendation Letter

grad school recommendation letter April 18th, 2016

NOTE: Forging, altering, or otherwise fabricating letters of recommendation is a criminal offense. Under no circumstances should you submit a letter of recommendation under someone else’s name without their expressed permission. If you are having difficulty coming up with three letters of recommendation, read through our tips on how to get additional letters.

This post is for all the applicants who have asked for information on how to write a grad school recommendation letter. A lot of them are the subjects of awful letters that led to a rejection, ultimately looking to be more involved with their professors in the process next time around (and hopefully improve their chances).  Others have been asked to write a draft of their own recommendation letter by a professor. Still others have been asked to actually write the entire thing by lazy recommenders (it happens more often than you’d think).
Regardless of the circumstances surrounding it, writing a grad school recommendation letter is really an art form, especially considering the major role these letters play in every student’s career. To applicants who shrug off the importance of a grad school recommendation letter, often thinking they’re never actually read—think again. They are taken very, very seriously. They’re pored over, deconstructed, and discussed. Admissions committees trust other professors more than they trust you or standardized test scores, so a grad school recommendation letter can make or break a students academic career.

 

So, how do you write your own grad school recommendation letter?

 

These suggestions regard general format and structure, and we assume you’re already fairly familiar with the goals of a grad school recommendation letter. If you’re just starting out, were asked to write your own letter, or aren’t sure how to ask someone for a grad school recommendation letter, it’s a good idea to read through these posts first:

How To Get An Amazing Letter of Recommendation

Grad School Without Letters of Recommendation?

Who To Ask For A Letter of Recommendation?

Let’s first look at paragraph structure, keeping in mind these are just suggestions. Obviously each recommendation letter needs to be tailored and personalized in excruciating detail.
(1) A generic opening that shows excitement and enthusiasm “I am pleased to write this recommendation letter on behalf of xxxx.” This is immediately followed by explanation of who writer is, how they know the applicant, in what capacities, for how long, and why they’re qualified to write a recommendation. “I advised XXX for over two years, working side by side with them on several project. I’m currently department chair of the applied mathematics, and have advised and graduated over two dozen graduate students since working at XXX University, leaving me more than qualified to speak to XXX’s potential.” General comparison of the applicant to others in the field and their peer group is also a good idea. “XXX is among the very top X% of undergraduate students I’ve worked with, and promises to….”
(2) Detailed description of research experience or classwork performance. Describe the topics covered and technical skills the applicant learned, but more importantly, provide context for how this prepared them for success in graduate school.  The most important thing a letter can do is detail why an applicant has a promising career in research (with specifics, not generalities).
(3) A quick discussion of the applicants maturity and the complexity of their research project (or coursework). Effective letters reassure admissions committees that a thesis or summer project had substantial intellectual merit, even if they didn’t get a publication out of it. Details about work ethic, productivity, and fortitude are valuable here. If relevant, it’s also a good idea to itemize various technical skills that have been acquired. The point is to describe the applicant (you) as a soon-to-be graduate student, not as an undergrad student still trying to figure things out.
(4) Add evidence broad activity engagement —awards, honors, extracurriculars, personal projects, and conference activity if applicable.
(5) A brief write up of future research goals, so that admissions committees feel reassured that the applicant has discussed a long-term plan with professors already, and knows what they’re getting into and why.
(6) If applicable add discipline-specific benefits, such as experience in a country of interest, language fluency, technical or programming skills, etc. For example, even if the recommender never utilized your ability to speak Russian, that doesn’t mean it isn’t potentially useful for your graduate studies in mathematics. A brief mention of these extra skills by a recommender is a good idea–it adds weight and verification.
(7) Description of teaching abilities, teamwork, community involvement. If you’ve TA’d a class, mention the course name, overview of material covered, and methods used.  Awards given for teaching, community or departmental involvement can be mentioned. In fact, any and all awards should be pointed out by the recommender if possible. Not to say there should be an itemize list, that’s what the CV is for, but substantial honors should be highlighted.
(8) General involvement, in school and otherwise. Did you create a new extracurricular program? Volunteer for a diversity committee? Demonstrated community involvement, commitment, and knowledge of administrative responsibilities are all good points to mention. One problem many graduate communities have is a lack of engagement outside research. Showing that an applicant is likely to contribute to the graduate community, is a nice bonus point.
(9) Brief remarks about character and personality, as long as it relates to research oriented work. Attributes like resourcefulness, responsibility, good humor, organization, energy, etc. For female applicants avoid: nice, selfless, giving, caring, bubbly, sweet, warm, nurturing, maternal, etc.
“In summary, I expect XXX to have a very successful graduate career, and give him/her my unqualified recommendation. Please don’t hesitate to contact me at [phone number and/or email address] if you should require any additional information.”

 

 

Nuts and Bolts

> At least one single spaced full page in length and not more than two full pages
> Written on university letterhead (THIS IS IMPORTANT)
> It will not gush or wax emotional
> Provide evidence and substance only
> Do not rely on cheap adjectives (incredible, motivated, passionate, remarkable, extraordinary, amazing, etc.)
> It will never damn the applicant with faint praise (“XX is one of the better students we’ve had in the department”)
> It will emphasize depictions of the candidate as a graduate student
> It will include wider context, providing a complete view of the candidate’s accomplishments while still emphasizing specific experiences
> It will provide specific examples about research, methods, teaching, or service–not vague generalities
> It will be exclusively  positive.  Any writer who cannot be 100% positive about the applicant should not write a letter. In the event that you fear your recommender is ambivalent, it’s best to either get another recommender or ensure they’re ok with what you wrote before committing to that professor.  A tactful way to give them an easy out is to say “If you don’t feel you know my record well enough support this letter, I will understand.”

 

When applicants write their own letters it’s important to remember to stay factual and not emotional.
Now, some of you will wonder where the warmth comes from if you’re not allowed to get emotional. Indeed, warmth is necessary for an effective letter. But in reality, the warmth comes through the most when you use detail instead of a lot of cheap adjectives. Any writer who can speak with great care, thoroughness, and respect about a student’s achievements is demonstrating support of that student. Extra efforts to “sound sincere” just end up muddying the message and in the case of female candidates, overly-gendering the profile in ways that do not work to a woman’s benefit.
Bonus tip for European, Asian and other international students applying to the United States: LoR Warning to European Students
If you have any additional questions, please comment below!

 

 

By
@
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