On writing my first letter of recommendation

I was asked to write a letter of recommendation for someone. This is the first one I’ve ever written. Well, technically, I’ve written letters of recommendation before…but for myself; some professors I’ve asked letters from, have asked me to provide a draft they could then edit. I know this is usually frown upon by some people, but apparently this is more common that I imagined.

"Are all these letters of recommendation from your mother?"

“Are all these letters of recommendation from your mother?” (Image credit)

Anyway, let’s rephrase my statement from before: this is the first letter I’ve written for someone else. A former undergraduate student in our lab asked me to write a letter for her to apply to grad school in the US. It was great to be asked to do this, but agreeing to write one is a big responsibility. The idea is to describe the applicant’s strength and weaknesses, with regards to the program they are applying to; to describe whether they are a good fit for the program and mention why. Agreeing to write one, in my opinion, should be done with the idea that the writer is actually supportive of the applicant’s plan: you want the person to be able to be accepted into the program and I guess that if you can’t really recommend the person in an honest way, maybe you should simply decline to write it or mention your reservations to the student and let he/she decide whether he/she still would want you to write it.

I’m positive I’ll be writing more letters in the future, so I took this opportunity to study a little more about writing effective letters. I read a bunch of sample letters online and also read an addendum to the HHMI book “Making the Right Moves: A Practical Guide to Scientific Management for Postdocs and New Faculty”, entitled “Writing a Letter of Recommendation”. It was very useful and I recommend it. It includes a bunch of tips which were very helpful for knowing what to mention and what not to mention in the letter.

Before writing

Basically I started by asking the student about her plans and why she wanted to join the program. In the end, I simply asked for her intention letter which included all this information. Knowing her goals and motivation for the specific program was very useful for drafting the letter. Additionally, I asked her to send me her CV and asked if there was any particular aspect she wanted me to specifically discuss in the letter. In her case, she wanted me to center my discussion around her research experience. Note that I did not ask her to tell me which aspect I should compliment; simply which one she wanted me to focus on. I asked this because people usually get letters from different people highlighting different aspects of their CV/training.

What I wrote

In the letter, I basically introduced myself and described my relationship to the student. In my case, we shared a lab bench for over a year and I taught a few classes in which she was a student. I then mentioned how I ranked her among all undergrads I’ve met in a similar setting (i.e. in the lab). People usually do this by saying something like “In my opinion, candidate x is among the top 5 percent of the students I have known”. I then went on to describe the project she worked on while in the lab and her findings, highlighting not only the technical side of the project (her knowledge of lab techniques, the ones she had to implement and troubleshoot, etc.), but also aspects of her personality (personal attributes) that I considered were relevant for its development (i.e. can work independently, has a critical mind, is determined, etc). The idea is to be specific, to denote that you truly know the candidate. I then discussed writing and oral communication skills, as they relate to how she communicated her scientific findings.

I thought it would also be relevant to mention some shortcomings she had when she joined that lab that have now been improved, with specific examples as to how this has changed. As stated in the HHMI document I mentioned above, “You don’t just have to describe the candidate as he or she is right now—you can discuss the development the person has undergone”.

Then I discussed how good a fit her skills are to the specific program she applied to and gave my impression about her likelihood to be a successful student in that program.

I finished the letter summarizing my enthusiasm for the candidate and highlighting the skills I think can make her a good asset to the program. The last line was just my offer to help if further information about the candidate was required. In all, the letter was 2 pages long.

I think I did an acceptable job. When the time comes that I start reading letters from others, I’ll probably learn more tips on writing letters, and I’ll try to make them more effective and help students as much as I can.

I hope she gets in!

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