Writing Good Letters

In the academic world, letters make the world go ’round. Letters for grants, scholarships, advocacy, awards, and recommendations are commonplace. If you hang around long enough, you will inevitably be asked to write one. Early on in my academic career, I was asked to write a letter for a student who was applying for a study abroad program, and recently, I was asked by a colleague to write a letter of support for a teaching award. In my experience, students talk a lot about how to locate appropriate references and ask for letters, but don’t really talk about how to write strong letters – especially as a student or early career professional.

I certainly don’t have any expertise in this area (I would love to hear your comments and tips!), but I thought it might be helpful to share a few thoughts for anyone in a similar position.

So where to begin?!

  • First off, do not agree to write the letter unless you are comfortable doing it, think you can write a strong letter, and have the time to do so. I have been in the unfortunate position of spending hours on scholarship applications only to find out that one of my letters never made it to the department. Trust me, despite how hard it is, it’s much better for everyone if you just decline if you have any doubts or concerns.
  • Before you agree, find out as much as you can about the purpose and mechanics of the letter (e.g., format, length, award criteria, how it is to be submitted, etc.) so you know what is expected of you and what to write about. This should go without saying, but once you know what’s expected – stick to the preferred format! Be sure to also follow standard practice for business correspondence if the letter is free-form (e.g., include your address, the date, salutation, professional language, etc.) and don’t forget to proofread. I can’t say for sure if a sloppy letter would impact someone’s application, but it might reflect poorly on you as the letter writer, undermining your credibility.
  • It’s also a good idea to ask the requester if they would like you to speak about something specific. For example, if an award is looking at both leadership and teaching, the applicant might want different people to focus on different experiences/traits/values in their letters, so they don’t end up with three identical documents!
  • Ask the requester for concrete examples that you can talk about. If the letter is about academic performance, request a transcript or class project. If the letter is for teaching, ask for syllabi, assignments, or examples of student feedback. You get the idea. Using behavioural examples will not only make your job easier, but it makes for a stronger letter as it lends credibility to what you are discussing.
  • Before jumping into those examples, briefly indicate why you are writing the letter (e.g., in support of X’s application to your program). Besides being a very practical way to start your letter, many of us are afflicted with impostor syndrome and it may be helpful to think about the letter’s purpose and why you are in a unique position to offer insight.
  • After the why, start with how you know the person (in what capacity and for how long). This speaks to why you are qualified or able to act as a reference for that person. This is especially important for us newbies as it’s important to establish our credibility. Using an example from my own academic career, my supervisor was not comfortable writing a reference letter for scholarship applications that occurred in October(ish) of my first year at the school, as they would not have had enough personal experience to draw on in order to write a strong letter.
  • Having been on the other side of this process many times, I know how nerve-wracking it can be to put your [insert important objective here] in someone else’s hands. Grad students tend to be an anxious bunch, so ensure that you get a firm deadline from the person requesting the letter and keep them posted on your progress. In the event that something comes up and you absolutely cannot write the letter, be sure to notify the individual as soon as possible and if appropriate (and with permission) contact the intended recipient to explain any delay.
  • In the letters that I have seen, they typically conclude with a statement inviting the recipient to contact you if there are any questions or concerns.

Happy letter-writing y’all!



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