Dos and Don'ts for Recommendation Letters
The following are lists of dos and
don’ts to consider when writing personal statement. These lists are
based on suggestions which I consider sensible and which are common
to those providing guidance.
Make sure that the Letter of
Recommendation does not conflict with or duplicate the rest of the
application (Personal Statement, Transcripts, Resume, etc.)
Describe your qualifications for
comparing the applicant to other applicants.
"I have been teaching for twenty years and have advised
approximately 450 students on independent research projects over
the last five years. "
"I have personally supervised ten interns every summer for the
last five years plus worked with over two hundred college
graduates in my capacity as trainer for Company X "
Discuss how well you know the
"I was able to get to know Mr. Doe because he made it a point
to attend two of my sections every week when only one was
Choose two or three (or more)
qualities that you observed in the applicant.
"The combination of tenacity, analytical abilities, and good
communications skills found in Mr. Doe is truly unique."
Support your statements with
specific examples in which the applicant has demonstrated those
attributes. Be as concrete and detailed as possible
"He is the only student I ever had who came to all my office
hours as part of a relentless, and ultimately successful, drive to
master financial theory. He was one of just ten percent in the
class to receive an A. "
Try to quantify the student's
strengths or rank him or her vis a vis other applicants that you
"He was in the top 10% of his class."
"She has the best analytical skills of any person her age that I
have ever supervised. "
Try to describe the student in terms
that reflect that student's distinctive or individual strengths.
Whatever strengths strike you as particularly salient, be prepared
to back up your judgment with concrete examples - papers, exams,
class presentations, or performance in a laboratory.
Include some mild criticism,
typically the flip-side of a strength.
"The only fault I have encountered in him is his retiring
nature. His modesty sometimes hides a young man of remarkable
strength and broad interests."
"Occasionally, her fortitude and persistence can turn into
stubbornness, but usually her good nature and level-headedness
Discuss the applicant's potential in
his or her chosen field it may give the student the edge over
other applicants, since most committees look not only for what the
student has already done but what he or she has the potential to
"I enthusiastically recommend Mr. Doe to your business school.
This well-rounded student will be a fine businessperson."
"With her exceptional leadership, writing, and quantitative
skills, Ms. Smith will be an outstanding strategic consultant and
a credit to the business school she attends."
Waive your rights. You have the
legal right to read the stuff colleges have in their files about
you. Virtually all recommendation forms include a little box where
you can waive this right by signing your name. By all means, waive
the right. Colleges won't pay attention to your recommendations if
they think the people who wrote them were worried that you would
be reading them. Sign the waiver before you give the forms to your
Use generalities and platitudes.
Reference 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.
Use the misconception that the more
superlatives that you use, the stronger the letter. Heavy use of
stock phrases or clichés in general is unhelpful. Your letter can
only be effective if it contains substantive information about the
Use empty, vague, overly-used words
like meaningful, beautiful, challenging, rewarding, etc.
Say "I hope", instead say "I am
confident..." or "I am sure..."
Learn more about the structure of the