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July 11, 2013 Volume 34, No. 33

Thoughtful approach needed for recommendation letters


Solid tips offered for writing letters of recommendation

letter of recommendation can excite or bore prospective employers or university administrators about the potential of an applicant. Writers need to take the task seriously and do their homework, advisers say. Writers also need to know when it’s in the best interest of the student to decline the letter-of-recommendation request.

Shari Freyermuth, director of undergraduate advising in the biochemistry department, can testify to the power of a strong recommendation. When an advisee graduated with a less than superb GPA due to a stressful personal life, Freyermuth was still able to help the student get accepted to a medical school. 

“I wrote a letter of rec explaining that the student was hard-working and smart, despite what the GPA reflected,” Freyermuth said. “That letter helped so much because I knew what was going on in his life and could turn the negative into a positive.” 

Freyermuth and Tim Parshall, director of the Fellowships Office, attribute a personal relationship and working knowledge of a student as the golden ticket to a tailored letter. Carbon copy, fill-in-the-blank recommendations don’t cut it. The less you know about a student, the harder it is to write about them.

Parshall suggests that writers talk about more than job or scholastic performance, and platitudes should be avoided. “If all you can do is write a bland letter, that won’t help the student,” he said. 

“Spend time with the students, interview them, have them provide information so you can create a context,” Parshall said. “Look at their transcript, resumé, statement of purpose so you can give specific examples.” 

Freyermuth put a positive spin on a perceived fault. But advisers caution against going too far. Honesty is important to maintain institutional and personal integrity, Parshall said. 

In instances when you must decline writing a letter, he suggests that you simply tell the student that someone else would be better for the job. 

As the old saying goes, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” 

Telling a student that you aren’t right for the job is both a favor to him or her and yourself in this case, Parshall said.

— Lauren Steele