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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 applicant.
    "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 required. "

  • 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 have observed.
    "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 prevail."

  • 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 accomplish..
    "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 teachers.


  • 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 clich�s in general is unhelpful. Your letter can only be effective if it contains substantive information about the student's qualifications.

  • 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 Recommendation Letters:

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