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Tips and Advice for Faculty

Letters of Recommendation:

What helps:

  • Point to some specific examples of what the candidate has done -- gave a terrific presentation, was a dedicated employee who figured out new business practices -- look for results.
  • Provide information about the student's strengths in an interview. Letters should assist the committee in interviewing a student.
  • Be specific. If the student wrote a brilliant paper on quarks, mention the title and why it stood out.
  • Make the case for why this person would be a strong Truman (Rhodes, etc.) candidate. The letter should avoid the redundant information about GPA, class standing, etc. (unless there's something about it not captured in the numbers). Knowing what's unusual about the student (in areas relevant to the scholarship) is really critical.
  • Give the reader some context of how the person knows the candidate--school, civic, work, etc.---and for what period of time that the person has been known.
  • Provide specific dates, times and location of the event/activity being reviewed.
  • Put the student in perspective. Percentages sometimes help; "top 10% of students in my 50 years of teaching" when true is useful.
  • Give serious indication that you know the candidate personally (when possible). For example, incidents or actions that are unique to your relationship are more credible, than writing about things that are obviously on the resume and can be repeated without verification. Comments about character from personal knowledge are also quite credible. That means that the referring official is somewhat going out on a limb, and that means a lot.

What hurts:

  • Do not write three boilerplate paragraphs about the your course and teaching style. The committee does not particularly care how difficult you feel your class is. The letter should be about the student. Include information about the class only when it helps the reader interpret the student's activities or academic record, i.e. provides relevant context.
  • Avoid letters that only tell what grade was given in what course. They are useless. Letter-writers should provide substantial information about classroom experiences.
  • The fact that a student did the reading for the class should not be included in the recommendation. It should simply be expected and implies that other students did not do the reading (reflecting badly on the institution).
  • Be honest, but cautious about criticism. Committees take it seriously. Be fair to both the candidate and to the reader.
  • Do not include general platitudes that the scholar is a great person and is a candidate for sainthood.
  • Avoid citing experiences that happened quite a few years ago -- the more recent the better.

Note: it is a real downer if the person writing the letter mentions that they only briefly met the candidate but the staff said nice things.

Further Resources: