Writing effective letters of recommendation
Letters of recommendation, evaluation, or reference are the 'currency' of academia, and without them, nobody moves up to the next level. Strong letters are especially crucial for success in national scholarships and fellowships competitions, which are by nature exceptionally competitive. If a student has asked you for a letter of recommendation for an award, they are doing so because they respect you and feel that you have had a significant impact on their lives.
The Office of National Scholarships Advisement is happy to provide advice and guidance to faculty writing letters of recommendation. In fact, we typically compose a detailed 'memorandum of guidance' for faculty who are writing letters for major awards - if a student has asked you to write a letter, you should ask them if ONSA has provided such a memo.
Broadly, however, the following advice holds true for most national scholarships and fellowships:
- Strong letters of recommendation make claims for the student's fit for the scholarship or fellowship and provide concrete supporting evidence.
- Providing context is important - consider what the audience doesn't know about ASU, your course, your research, or your and your student's backgrounds.
- Do moderate your praise - superlatives are acceptable when specifically tied to examples. Good descriptions illustrate relevant skills. Fawning praise or hyperbole degrades credibility.
- When providing examples, use narrative techniques to show the student in action and illustrate your superlative descriptions.
- Offering fair criticism of the student can enhance your credibility. Consider (briefly) discussing the student's areas in need of improvement, and try to turn his or her shortcomings into virtues.
- Anything that erodes credibility - be sure that you have correctly addressed the audience and identified the name of the award. If you are adapting portions of previous letters, be sure that you've used the correct proper names and pronouns.
- Writing overlong about yourself or your research - while it is important to provide context, do remember that the primary focus of the letter should be the student.
- Back-handed compliments - at times, faculty must reach to find 'brag points' about their students, and these creative attempts can actually denigrate the student (e.g. pointing out that the student did moderately well in your class "despite missing numerous lectures," or that the student overcame limited ability and preparation with "exceptional work ethic"). If you cannot offer strong examples to support the student's application, then you should politely decline to write (see below).
- Discriminatory language - avoid any language that unnecessarily attentions the student's age, race or ethnicity, gender, physical appearance, or disabilities. An exception would be, of course, when an aspect of the student's identity presented significant challenges that he or she overcame (e.g. a woman in a male-dominated field, an ethnic minority who confronted prejudice, a student who overcame a significant physical disability).
When to say no
In some cases, declining to write a letter might be the best thing to do. Saying 'no' to a student for a valid reason is preferable to writing a less-than-helpful letter of recommendation. Feel free to decline...
- If the students ask too close to the deadline (students advised by ONSA know to ask at least four weeks in advance);
- If a student asks you in an unprofessional manner (students advised by ONSA are instructed on proper etiquette);
- If you cannot recall anything specific about the student, aside from the records in your grade book;
- If you feel that you cannot provide an overall positive evaluation or if you have reservations about the student's commitment, motivation, or character; or
- If you feel that you are not an appropriate referee for this particular award, or that your observations will not be relevant to the selectors.