Writing Letters of Recommendation

Why write a letter of recommendation

Letters of recommendation are often used by an organization's hiring officials to gather additional information about an applicant. The letter should give an assessment of the candidate's personal characteristics, past performance and experience, strengths, abilities, and professional promise from someone who has worked closely with the applicant or knows the applicant well.

When not to write a letter of recommendation

There are legitimate reasons to refuse to write a letter of recommendation. You may not know the applicant well enough, you may not have time to write it by the time the applicant needs it, or you may not be able to write positive things about the applicant. Whatever the reason(s), you should to be honest with the applicant about them. A simple conversation may provide you with additional information or a negotiated time frame in which to complete it. If you are not able to provide a positive recommendation, it is important for you to tell the applicant the reason(s) why. Oftentimes, this is an opportunity for growth and a "reality check" for the applicant. While it is difficult to say no, if done with tact and consideration, it can be helpful for the applicant in the long term.

Gathering Information

Whenever possible, you should schedule a meeting with the individual who has asked you to write a recommendation. Asking simple questions about what the letter will be used for, when they need it, and the format (hard copy, email, reference form, etc.) can be enough to get the conversation started. Also ask for a copy of their resume so that you are reminded of their relevant skills, experiences, strengths, qualifications, or anything else that will help with the composition of the letter. The more informed you are, the quicker and easier it will be to write a high qualify recommendation letter.

Confidential vs. Non-Confidential Letters

When the applicant asks you to provide a letter of recommendation, ask them if the letter will be confidential or non-confidential. (NOTE: All Candidate Evaluation Forms used in DSU Credential Files are considered open or non-confidential.) If it will be confidential, you should send the letter directly to the organization to which they are applying. If it will be non-confidential, in addition to sending the letter to the organization, you can also send a copy to the applicant.

Important Points to Keep in Mind

  1. Provide honest and factual information. Do not write anything that you are not willing to defend in public. If you do find it necessary to make negative comments, back them up with facts.
  2. Concentrate on several different aspects of the applicant and provide specific examples where possible.
  3. Type your recommendation neatly without typos or “slang”. The quality of your letter is also a reflection on the applicant.
  4. If you are using a standard recommendation form (i.e. credential evaluation form), try to restrict your comments to the space provided.
  5. Never identify characteristics that can be the basis of discrimination, such as race, color, nationality, gender, religion, age, appearance, any handicapping condition, marital or parental status, or political point of view. If a situation arises wherein including involvements is unavoidable, you should consult with the applicant to determine their comfort level in regard to the information you include and how you state it.
  6. Recommendation letters are often followed up with a personal call from someone on the selection committee in order to get better “read” on the reference. Forgetting to include a phone number on the letter or not returning the phone call could reflect poorly on the applicant as well as on your credibility as a reference.

Release of Information

Under FERPA (Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act), information regarding grade point average, courses, performance in class, etc. are considered part of a student’s educational record and cannot be released without expressed written consent from the student. Although most letters of recommendation do not include educational record information, if the student asks you to include educationally related information, they must provide you with written consent (or a FERPA release). This serves as documentation that the student has asked you to write a letter of recommendation and provide it to the designated organizations or institutions.

Useful Online Sources Regarding Letters of Recommendation

Last Updated: 1/10/12