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Career Advice

Reference letters revisited

Some research-based advice on how to write them correctly


Effective reference letters are a crucial element of good teaching, and considering the importance of these letters to our students’ futures, it is shocking how little guidance educators receive on how to write them. The limited amount of publicly available guidance on how to write reference letters is primarily in university career centres. Clearly, then, practitioners of the scholarship of teaching – particularly in Canada but also world-wide – have yet to identify the letter of reference as part of the learning experience.

Do I know you? Assessing and expressing your confidence in the student

The letter-writing process begins well before the referee starts to fill out the relevant forms. Since the receiving universities say the most common flaws in reference letters are vagueness and generalities (according to Lynn Brown’s “Fourteen ways to write a better letter of recommendation” in the journal Professional School Counselling, 1999), it is therefore critical that instructors know enough about their subjects to write convincingly before they start.

If students are familiar to referees, the writers must first decide whether a letter from them will be in the students’ best interest. Do they think highly enough of the individuals who have approached them? Do they have any recent experience with them? Is the knowledge they have appropriate to the application? Research suggests that lukewarm letters are often more harmful than no letter at all, so the decision to write in support of a student should be considered carefully.

When students are less well-known to referees, potential writers should begin by encouraging, if not requiring, applicants to provide them with appropriate supporting information – an updated CV, an unofficial transcript, a draft of the student’s personal statement (which will explain how the student’s interests match the program in question), and any other concise information that writers might deem useful. If the student took a course that uses teaching assistants to lead tutorials, seminars or labs, then those assistants should be contacted for their views of the student’s performance. On rare occasions – for instance when a student has been away from university for an extended period and is now hoping to return – they might need to talk to the student.

Format without form-letters: Some guidelines for structuring your personal recommendation

Letters are typically made up of four sections.

The first serves as an introduction which establishes the relationship between the student and the referee, along with the length of time that the two individuals have been known to one another. Was the student known to you in a single or multiple courses? Did you have any other interactions or opportunities to observe the performance and commitment of this candidate? The context and quality of your interaction with the student in question is an important feature of your credibility as a referee.

The second deals specifically with the student’s accomplishments and performance as they relate both to you as the referee and comparatively to the student’s cohort (results in courses, ranking in classes, any other evidence that demonstrates achievement). Grounding your reference in such concrete measures and specific examples can help to provide selecting committees with the kinds of hard evidence required from their most explicitly enumerated selections criteria.

No less significant are the softer, more nuanced appraisals of the student’s abilities you can offer. This third section considers the student’s character at a more general, but at the same time personal, level (examples might include work ethic, social skills, non-academic achievements, degree of motivation for the program in question, resourcefulness). Your ability to confidently capture the student’s core professional character or to speak knowledgably about their other relevant activities beyond your lecture hall can help to make your reference among the most powerful agents in their admissions folio.

The conclusion should recommend the student to the program in a clear and explicit manner, without caveat or qualification. Your final remarks should bear directly on what you judge to be this student’s overall suitability and prospects for success in the target program. The committee should not be in any doubt as to the strength and substance of your final recommendation.

When good letters go bad: constructively curbing your enthusiasm

Rightly or wrongly, unmitigated praise can raise unwarranted suspicion about a candidate. Letter inflation, or exaggerating a candidate’s abilities, is a perpetual concern. Exaggerating too much puts the referee’s credibility in present and future letters at risk, but being honest and critical when others are less so might also prevent a worthy student from gaining a much-deserved opportunity. Fortunately, relatively recent research by Michael Ryan and David Martinson in the Journalism and Mass Communication Educator suggests that references are generally less inflated than most would assume, and writers can therefore feel reasonably comfortable speaking the so-called truth.

When writing references in Rome: cultural contrasts in letter-writing

When attempting to determine how even-handed the assessments in their letter might appear, referees should take into consideration cultural differences. Anecdotally, in a 1998 article in English for Specific Purposes, Karen Precht noted that British admissions committees seem to expect more balanced letters, and therefore perceive referees who find faults in their subjects as more credible. American readers, on the other hand, are more inclined to interpret the listing of an applicant’s flaws as a vote of non-confidence. Americans also are more likely to respond to lengthier letters that include personal anecdotes; they assume that being able to recount an intimate story demonstrates that you’re more familiar with a candidate and can therefore make a more-informed judgment. In contrast, British and German letters are generally more factual and might even come across to North Americans as abrupt because of their more intense focus on the candidate’s measurable academic accomplishments.

Trouble getting started? Try this online template:

Adam Chapnick is the deputy chair, Department of Command, Leadership, and Management at Canadian Forces College.

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