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Letter of Recommendation

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How to Write Powerful Letter of Recommendation

Many undergraduates ask their GSIs for letters of recommendation. Undergraduates sometimes feel more comfortable approaching a GSI than they would a faculty member. Furthermore, GSIs for large lecture courses often have more individual contact with undergraduates than faculty members do, and thus are often in a better position to write a detailed letter of recommendation. So, how do you write a good letter of recommendation?

Before You Write the Letter

First, decide if you are the best person to write the letter. A letter of recommendation from a faculty member will carry more weight than a letter from a GSI. However, GSIs often know students better than faculty members, and may be able to write a more detailed, and thus more useful, letter. One solution may be for the GSI to write the letter and have it co-signed by the faculty member.

Ask the student what motivated him or her to ask you. Also ask if there are others that might be asked. Sometimes, a student may be shy to ask someone else, and you can reassure the student, or encourage the student to ask a professor.

Also, decide if you can honestly recommend the student. If not, suggest that he/she consider asking another person. For example, if you feel that you cannot honestly recommend the student, or you feel that you cannot do so wholeheartedly, you may wish to suggest to the student that someone else might be in a better position to write the recommendation letter.

Discuss with the student the institution, program, or field of study to which he or she is applying. This will help you to decide whether you can recommend the student and give you a greater sense of what to include in or exclude from the letter. Your letter should point out how the student's particular strengths fit well with the chosen discipline.

Ask the student for a list of paperwork that must be completed by you together with a list of dates and addresses. If the student is applying to more than one institution, ask for all the materials for different institutions in different envelopes or folders. Check that the student has signed any relevant waivers or other forms. In addition, check that the student has provided a stamped addressed envelope in which to place each completed recommendation.

Request copies of papers or exams that the student has submitted in your course to help you recall the details of their work. It is extremely important to give specific examples to back up your more general claims. This is easier to do if you have copies of past work in front of you when you are writing the letter. It is also helpful to check the grade records, if they are available, as many recommendation forms ask you to state the student's position in the class (for example, in the top 5%, 10%, etc.).


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