How to write a reference letter?
December 28, 2005 2:11 PM   Subscribe

I have been asked to write recommendation letters for an undergrad who is applying to grad schools. Should I just automatically use a separate sheet, or should I use their form if they provide a lot of space? Any general tips for the structure of the letter?

I'm only a post-doc, so this is my first time writing a letter of reference. One of the schools wanted 4 letters, so I agreed to write one for her (and once I've written one, we figured that I might as well send one to all the schools). She was under my direct supervision in the lab for about a year, so while I can't say much about her academic work, I do know about her research qualifications (she made 10-15 peptides by solid phase fmoc synthesis, then went on to use mol. bio. techniques to express 2 different full length proteins, in both cases doing all the steps including purification and characteriazation). Am I doing her a favor with the schools that only asked for 3 letters? Any guides or examples on the web?
posted by 445supermag to Education (11 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
YES - it was an academic work setting - a perfect recommendation letter situation.

She'll get academic references... don't worry.

PS, there are templates all over the web to get you started. Google for "masters letter reference" - copy and paste some together and start writing!
posted by k8t at 2:13 PM on December 28, 2005

Response by poster: So, is a letter on a separate sheet pretty standard (I'm thinking professors who write lots of these don't want to handwrite in the box provided, but just print off several copies of a letter)?
posted by 445supermag at 2:26 PM on December 28, 2005

I think most do a seperate sheet. In fact, many grad schools do it electronically.
posted by k8t at 2:30 PM on December 28, 2005

Separate sheet on letterhead.

And do not cut and paste from anywhere, unless you're trying to sabotage the student's chances.

What makes a good letter for grad school is a letter that is very specific about the person. You cannot get that by cutting and pasting. Here's a place to start for advice. Here's more.

Note that although you will be speaking mostly about your own experience of the student, you should still ask to see the cv and personal statement they will be submitting and a writing sample would also be good. You can make passing reference to info you've gleaned from these materials.
posted by duck at 2:40 PM on December 28, 2005

Oh...but you still have to fill in the sheet if it's one of those sheets that asks specific survey questions. Then you provide the letter on letterhead in addition to the survey.
posted by duck at 2:41 PM on December 28, 2005

What's wrong with looking at the online templates for some ideas? This is the first letter he's writing!
posted by k8t at 2:53 PM on December 28, 2005

The student is supposed to be the one worrying about the professor's letters.
posted by smackfu at 3:00 PM on December 28, 2005

I've written a few references for undergrads for jobs, and I'm a grad student. As long as they're getting other recommendations too, there's no problem with a supervising post-doc writing a letter.

Here's some things you can think about mentioning, from some letters I've written in the past:

--the amount of control the student had over their project
--if the student picks up new protocols quickly and has "good hands"
--if the student understood the "big picture" of their research project and/or had good ideas about future directions for their work (there are always students who can do what you tell them, but you can tell they don't have any clue what is going on)
--if the student was willing to work long and odd hours
--if the student would ask questions and seemed genuinely interested in learning more and really understanding the work
--how did they deal with problems in their research? Did they ask questions when they didn't understand things?
--if he/she ever did any presentations of their work, wrote up part of a paper, or did anything publicly to demonstrate that they performed and understood the research
--are they bright, personable, trustworthy, an asset to your lab? Will you miss them when they're gone?

If you can honestly highly rank this student among other students you've worked with in one aspect or another, then that's worth a mention. Something like "so-and-so is the most dependable/promising/enthusiastic/etc student I've trained." But don't over do it--nothing is more annoying than a recommendation letter in which somebody is over-hyping a person. Not every student can be the best you've ever met.

Be honest, but try to stay positive. If you can't say anything positive, it is best to say you can't write the letter--in my opinion.
posted by divka at 3:07 PM on December 28, 2005 [1 favorite]

Oh yeah--and as for structure:

First paragraph: Who are you and why are you writing this letter? How do you know this student, and for how long?

Second/Third paragraph: What's good about this student? (see points above)

Final paragraph: Do you believe this student would be a good choice for this graduate program?
posted by divka at 3:12 PM on December 28, 2005

What's wrong with looking at the online templates for some ideas? This is the first letter he's writing!

Nothing wrong with looking at them. I said don't paste from them.

But don't over do it--nothing is more annoying than a recommendation letter in which somebody is over-hyping a person. Not every student can be the best you've ever met.

I disagree. Letter inflation is as commonplace (if not more) as grade inflation. Which means that all the other letters will say "this is the most brilliant person I've ever met." If yours isn't gushing and over the top, you could be damning the student with faint praise. But again, your gushing should be peppered with specifics and examples.
posted by duck at 6:44 PM on December 28, 2005

I'm impressed already by your student (with the note that I'm not in molecular biology - but what she has done sounds impressive).

duck's advice is good, though I imagine that biology will have less stress on writing samples than social science or humanities disciplines. She's also right that in North America letters are somewhat exagerrated (unlike Britain, for example) - so students aren't simply good, they are "the best". But you can sound very believable if you write something like this (provided it's true): "So and So was the best student of her year" - even "by far" if it's true. I remember that when getting grad school recommendations, some forms asked the professors to rate the student in terms of percentile - are they in the top 2%, 5%, 10%, etc of students they have taught/supervised.

You may not have had as many students, but you can certainly compare your student to the others working in the lab, and it sounds like she compares favourably. Do stress her originality, her independent work and how she has moved research forward in your discipline.

Good luck to your student!

off topic note for others reading this: I've read a lot of the graduate school questions on AskMefi, and in talking to people around my graduate school, I've gathered that research experience is very important in the sciences and some social sciences, but it really isn't important in humanities. So if you are a humanities (literature, history, philosophy, etc) person, don't worry about research experience. All I had was one undergrad research paper (history: from printed primary sources, and I didn't submit it because it wasn't done yet), and I got into where I applied. duck could say better for sociology, etc.
posted by jb at 4:21 AM on December 30, 2005

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