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Faculty Staff References

Writing a Letter of Referencereference

Writing a letter of reference is an important and time-consuming responsibility. The best letters paint a picture of that person in concrete terms—how and when you knew the referee and your assessment of those encounters. Giving a concrete example is very powerful. Please be advised that asking the student for a resume, transcript or samples of work from your class can really assist you in writing and an effective letter. 

Many references are now online.  The student will provide you with a website and you enter the reference.  Many sites will have graphs to rank the students and the references are time consuming.  The references are so valuable to the students and need to be done well or not at all.

Some faculty/staff prefer to write a letter on departmental stationery. Either way is fine. Remember to keep a copy of any reference you write for often students will ask for a new reference after several years.

All reference information should be based on firsthand knowledge and, if possible, written documentation. When providing information, you should avoid personal matters (e.g., marital status, health, disabilities, race, religion, etc.) that by law should not be included in employment decisions, even if you believe that such information might enhance the student's candidacy.

Writing Reference Letters: Before You Begin:

  • When the student asks for a letter, understand what is being asked of you
  • What is the purpose of the letter?
  • What does the student expect from you?
  • Tell the student honestly how you feel about writing the letter for him/her
  • You are under no obligation to write a letter for anyone. If you feel uncomfortable honoring the request, please say so.
  • If you are comfortable writing the letter, ask the student for a copy of:
        -his/her resume
        -a transcript
        -a statement of purpose
        -an outline or list of accomplishments
        -contacts you have had with the students (courses, projects, advising, etc)
  • Whenever possible obtain the name and contact information of the person receiving the letter and send a personalized letter as opposed to a generic "To Whom It May Concern" letter.

Writing the Reference Letter:

  • Explain your relationship with the candidate
  • Make clear how well you know the person and under what circumstances. Include dates
  • Know the candidate's career goals and objectives
  • Tailor the letter of reference to a specific position or career field based on the candidate's goals
  • You may wish to set an appointment to discuss the letter
  • You might want to cover specific characteristics of the candidate including:
        -oral and written communication
        -sense of responsibility
        -ability to plan and organize
        -research skills
        -tact and ability to relate to others
        -group interaction and team-working skills
        -analytical/problem-solving skills
    -interpersonal skills
    -flexibility and adaptability
  • Give specific illustrations and examples rather than vague generalities

Some More Tips: 

  • Avoid sexist or racist remarks or physical descriptions. (Example: "Sara is a pretty, sweet young lady" -is not appropriate)
  • Keep your letter brief. Experts agree that a page to a page and a half is long enough for most letters
  • Use your business/organization stationery. The letter is much more impressive when typewritten/wordprocessed on stationery with your organization's letterhead
  • Volunteer to provide further information on the phone. This offer indicates that the candidate is a person about whom you feel strongly
  • End on an upbeat note. If catchy language is your style, use it to emphasize your enthusiasm (i.e. "hire her-you won't be sorry!") Otherwise an overall endorsement is helpful.

If you would like resources on how to construct a letter of recommendation, please click on the site below.

Sample Letter of Recommendation:  Graduate School 

Salisbury University
123 Camden Ave.
Anytown, Maryland  21801
(410) 234-1234   

July 27, 20XX

Ms. Debra Admit
Office of Graduate School Admissions
New University
123 College Avenue
Collegetown, Maryland, 12345

Dear Dr. Admit:

This reference letter is provided at the written request of Janie Studyhard, who has asked me to serve as a reference on her behalf. It is my understanding that Janie is being considered by New University for admission to the Counseling Psychology program.

I have known Janie Studyhard for the past three years as she has taken the following courses which I teach: [list courses, give brief description of content of course]. As her professor, I have had an opportunity to observe the student's participation and interaction in class and to evaluate the student's knowledge of the subject matter. I would rate the student's overall performance in these subjects as superior. This is evidenced by her grades--[state the grades].  

[One or two specific examples of the student's performance may be appropriate.] As part of her grade in [name of course], the student was required to prepare a paper. The paper was designed to measure the student's ability to research, to analyze the results of the research, and to write. [Discuss how the paper submitted by the student indicated to you the student's skills in these areas.] Based upon this, I rate the student's skills as excellent.

Based upon the student's academic performance and my understanding of the position for which the student is applying, I believe the student would perform (place overall evaluation here).

If you would like to discuss this further, please feel free to contact me.


Karen Forstudents 

Karen Forstudents, Ph.D.

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