Recommendation Letter Guidelines

You are asking for a letter that could take more than an hour to write.

Joe Schall’s website at Pennsylvania State University is a great source for advice and information on recommendation letters, and I strongly recommend students and faculty alike consult his pages, which include a discussion of ethical issues, questions of content, sample recommendation letters and specific advice for global award competitions.

The following advice is supplemental to the link above.  

  1. Letters of recommendation for global awards are not an assessment of a student’s suitability so much as a character and/or academic reference. They are letters of support. Because these awards are extraordinarily competitive, a tepid letter or cautiously phrased criticism will resound far louder than is perhaps intended. An overly general letter can also indicate a certain reserve. For that reason, if a professor feels like they don’t know enough to write a detailed account of that student, or if they have reservations, it is better to decline the student’s request, and have them search out a more suitable recommender. 
  2. These letters are lengthy. They aren’t a brief paragraph (generally speaking, they’re between 1 and 2 pages). You’re asking someone to spend quite a lot of time on your account, so please don’t ask them at the last minute. You should expect to spend a substantial amount of time assembling information for you recommender because they will spend a substantial amount of time writing the letter. 
  3. Once your recommender has agreed, I recommend sending them a detailed, concise follow-up letter with all the information they might need. The email should not be lengthy (around 500 words), but it should be concise and detailed. The more care you take in giving them relevant information, the more likely it is that they will take care with your recommendation. I recommend you consider including the following:
    1. The due date of the letter of recommendation and to whom it needs to be sent.
    2. Instructions for how to submit the recommendation letter. 
    3. A link to the award website, including an additional link to pages where they have advice for recommenders, or specify criteria they would like recommendations to speak to. You might also cut and paste key phrases or paragraphs so your recommender can see the salient pieces of information “at a glance” in your own email.
    4. If your recommender hasn’t written a lengthy recommendation before, you might want to send them some guidelines.
    5. You might want to explain to your recommender why you’re asking them. This gives them a sense of what experience you had with them that you want them to cover. You could explain who your other recommenders are, and what they’re going to be writing about. 
    6. If you have specific memories of the class, or you have a copy of your final paper, it helps to describe in detail, in a paragraph, what you thought was really interesting and significant about the experience. You’re not putting words in their mouth. Instead, you’re helping to jog their memory. 
    7. You might also want to attach your personal statement, but summarize the themes or concerns of it in on sentence in the body of your email. For applications with many short-answers, it might be helpful to also give your recommender a sense of what you’re covering there.
    8. Always follow up with a note of thanks. Again, take the time to write as thoughtfully as you expect them to.