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  • Oriana Skylar Mastro

Recommendations on Recommendation Letters

Writing recommendation letters is one of the big administrative jobs of anyone in the knowledge sector – whether you work at a university, think tank, or government organization. The greatest sign of your success as a professor or boss is that junior people outgrow you and want to move on to bigger and better things.

I have served on hiring committees and admission committees, so I can say with some confidence that your letter determines whether your student gets to achieve their goals and live up to their potential. Serving as a recommender is a HUGE responsibility. Don't think of it as an annoying administration task. It is the opportunity to give back to all the people that supported you, to that individual for all the hard work they've done for you, and to your community – because this may determine your future colleagues.

Plan and pay the setup costs. Create a template for your recommendation letters and save it somewhere on your computer where you can find it easily. Save a copy of your institutional letterhead in that folder. The body of the letter depends a bit on you. I would research the best approach to writing recommendation letters and decide what works for you and make your own template. Here are two posts that I find very useful.

And here’s the template I use.

recommendation letter template
Download DOCX • 16KB

Put it together. Create a folder for each individual that includes the letters you have written and useful materials like their transcripts, CV, and description of any work they've done for you. This way, if you need to submit a recommendation letter for them more than once, you can quickly tweak what you’ve already done.

Produce Reminders. I like to minimize the number of things I have to remember and keep track of, so I write and submit any requested recommendation letters on the Friday of the week that I receive all the needed materials, regardless of when they are due. When I was a student, it was so stressful when my professors waited until the day letters were due to submit them. And it's completely unnecessary – you are going to take some time to do it, so why not do so earlier rather than later?

To minimize the mental energy I have to spend, I ask my students or employees to submit all the materials I need to write the letter in one email the same day I receive all the online submissions' requests. I ask for a CV, transcript, any prepared application materials, the papers/projects they did for my class (if relevant), or a description of the work they've done for me (if relevant). For jobs, I ask them to let me know who is making the hiring decision (if that is known) - if I know the person, I may also send a personal note to tell them to look out for my student’s application.

Performance Notes. Be proactive about preparing your best students to be competitive in whatever they want to do next. I have conversations with the students I mentor and advise, and with my assistants at my think tank job or my subordinates in my military job, to get a sense of what is next for them. I then try to help them purposefully develop the skills they need to be competitive. So if a student tells me they want to apply to Ph.D. programs, I'll ask them to write more literature reviews on academic theories than policy summaries. Or maybe I need to be able to comment on their language skills – so I make sure to ask them to do some research in another language.

And be selectively in who you recommend. I have said no when I felt I wasn't in a position for whatever reason to write them a strong letter. Protect your reputation as a recommender – this ensures that when you do put yourself behind a candidate, it increases their chances of success.

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