How to Write a Letter of Recommendation

It’s that time of the year again.

Edwin L. Battistella, Writing for
4-minute read
Episode #500

Seniors are thinking ahead about their impending futures (a job, grad school, the Peace Corps). Former students are advancing in their careers. Colleagues and coworkers are engaging in year-end reflection and considering new positions. People are applying for grants, scholarships, and fellowships.

That means letters of recommendation.

When a request comes out of the blue during a busy week, our first reaction is sometimes to shudder. “Yikes,” we think, “one more task to fit in on top of exams, papers, proposals, committee reports, and the usual slew of email.” Task saturation.

Sure, letters of recommendation are work, but it is writing that makes a difference in people’s lives. If you keep a few principles in mind as you approach your letters, writing recommendations can be rewarding and even enjoyable.

The Letter Is Not About You

If you’ve read Julie Schumacher’s epistolary novel Dear Committee Members, you know the comic effect that arises when a letter of recommendation is more about the writer than the subject. Most of us are not as clueless as her protagonist, but it is easy to slip into too much first person. Letters should focus on the recommendee and their accomplishments, strengths (and weaknesses), and potential. There’s a time and place for introducing your favorite subject, but not when you are writing a letter of recommendation.

So instead of writing this:

I first met so-and-so when she took my introduction to the English language course two years ago and I was so impressed with her research and writing ability that I encouraged her to enroll in my advanced grammar course, where I have students write an in-depth paper…

You might try this:

So-and-so came to our department two years ago and performed impressively in the introduction to the English language, where she wrote a fine short paper on gender and pronouns. Later in advanced grammar, she wrote an in-depth paper on adjective clauses in written English texts.

Oh, and don’t start the letter by saying your name. They’ll see that at the end.


About the Author

Edwin L. Battistella, Writing for Grammar Girl

Edwin Battistella teaches linguistics and writing at Southern Oregon University in Ashland, where he has served as a dean and as interim provost. He is the author of "Dangerous Crooked Scoundrels: Insulting the President, from Washington to Trump" (OUP, 2020), "Do You Make These Mistakes in English?" (OUP, 2009), "Bad Language" (OUP, 2005), and "The Logic of Markedness" (OUP, 1996).