It’s that time of the year…letter of recommendation writing season! Let’s face it, at some point in our careers we get asked, for the first time, to write a letter of recommendation (LOR). And, if we’re being completely honest, it can be overwhelming! We may have a truly excellent student/intern/trainees/etc., but where do we even begin? Are we the right person to write an LOR? How do we show a reviewer who our student really is in a page or two? What is the right tone? What information is too personal to share?
We invite you to refer to our “How to Write a Letter of Recommendation” slide deck for a dive into the logistics of writing an LOR. This information is based on our own experiences at RockEDU alongside some great resources that we found online. If you are ready to begin mapping out your LOR, we invite you to download and print our LOR brainstorm sheet from the Save & Share Menu to get the ball rolling!
How does the LOR (Letter of Recommendation) fit into mentoring?
A letter of recommendation is the tangible output of a successful mentoring relationship. It is reasonable to assume that a mentee who fulfilled their expectations during their time with you may request an LOR, and may very well be a candidate for receiving one. Although your mentee may be deserving of an LOR, it is worth considering who may be the best person to produce this.
Considerations when thinking about LORs
When thinking about a request for an LOR, there are some important pieces to address. Foremost, a letter from you matters. At RockEDU, scientists often ask us whether they’re qualified to write a letter based on their position– and the answer is a resounding YES. Once you’ve decided that your mentee is a candidate to receive an LOR, the other core consideration should be based on your relationship with that student, since this is a critical piece of producing a compelling LOR. When evaluating your relationship with the student consider the time that you spent together (Think: Do you know this student well enough to write something compelling?) as well as your assessment of the relationship (Think: Can you produce something that is both honest and favorable?). Perhaps your student was a quick learner at the bench, but didn’t respond well to feedback and often missed deadlines. Unless there’s a real red flag with your mentee, you may want to consider asking them to request an LOR from someone else if you do not feel that you can do so in positive way.
Now that you’ve agreed to write an LOR
So, let’s say that at this point, you’ve decided that based on the depth and quality of your relationship with your mentee that you’d like to write them an LOR. Where to begin? You may know that your student was fantastic, but how can we best articulate this? We like to recommend starting with anecdotes. Take some time to reflect back on your time with your mentee, and recount stories that surprised or impressed you? Did your mentee have to deal with a particular failure? Or perhaps they had to innovate on the spot? Maybe their attention to detail led to questions that you would’ve never considered. Pay special attention to any growth that occurred through out your time together — did they develop new traits or hone existing ones?These are all things that will personalize your letter and help your mentee stand out in a recommendation. When thinking about the traits that your mentee embodied, be careful not to just list adjectives, but rather, tell the reviewer how those traits manifested in specific ways. Lastly, while curating anecdotes and thinking of attributes, ask yourself how these inform the “story” that you’re try to tell about your mentee. How do these pieces fit together to create a cohesive narrative?
When writing an LOR it is important to make an effort to avoid writing in biased language that may harm your mentee. This biases often manifest in things like gender-specific language (try avoiding descriptors like: “caring”, “attentive” and “team player” and opt for “motivated”, “passionate” and “dynamic”) and the way in which credit is ascribed (men are more often credited with big-picture accomplishment whereas women are more often acknowledged for their effort or supporting roles). However, biases often emerge for other marginalized identities. For example, recommenders should avoid qualifier when writing about a mentee (e.g. “Despite being an immigrant, they speak English so well!”). Finally, be conscious of the professionalism with which you write your letter by avoiding sharing information that is either irrelevant or rooted in bias (e.g. sharing information about someone’s home situation or children without their consent).
Tone, Etiquette and Ethics
When mapping out the bigger picture of your letter of recommendation, take time to consider the appropriate tone of your letter. The desired skills for a college applicant differ from the desired skills for a graduate or faculty applicant. For example, in a college application a reviewer may look for skills indicating that your mentee is a good learner and contributor, whereas in a graduate school application reviewers may look for an applicant who is focused, asks questions and has well-developed skills. Also, it doesn’t hurt to look at the website of the school where your mentee is applying, as this can help shape what sort of tone is most appropriate for your letter.
Beyond the actual letter writing process, be mindful of some core pieces of etiquette for both yourself and your mentee. Firstly, you are under no obligation to say “yes” to an 11th hour request (even if your mentee was phenomenal and fulfilled all of the expectations that would result in a letter). Part of your mentoring relationship should include lessons of professionalism, and this includes being respectful of others’ time and commitments. On the same coin, if you’ve committed to a writing a letter of recommendation for your mentee, don’t make them track you down. It’s completely appropriate to ask for a follow-up at some future point (especially if the mentee made the request 6+ months in advance), but you shouldn’t be the reason why your student can’t get their application in on time. Ultimately, if you’re not sure you can commit to submitting the letter in a timely fashion, it is better to just say “no”. Lastly, take the time to proofread your letter and make sure you have your mentee’s name and pronouns correct. Mistakes like these show a lack of interest in the candidate and may hurt them in the review process, so be diligent!
In the digital age, it may be confusing to figure out the ins and outs of information sharing and ethics. First, we always recommend that you advise your mentee to “waive the right” to see their LOR. This is generally a recommended as it allows the recommender (you) to be as candid as possible. It is not uncommon for some high schools to ask that you send your recommendation directly their counselor, so do not be alarmed if this happens. You also may notice that your mentee requests for your letters to be uploaded to CommonApp. CommonApp is a safe and ethical platform for applying to multiple universities simultaneously, so again, do not be concerned about submitting through this secure platform. Finally, be extremely cautious when sharing any personal stories about your mentee, even if you believe them to be useful. It is possible that your students’ background (be it financial hardships, experiences with marginalization or otherwise) are not things that they wanted shared with their university. If unsure, it’s always best to ask your mentee!
Things to Remember
Time. Although it does get easier, writing an LOR takes time! While we won’t advise you on the numbers of LORs that you should commit to, you should expect to spend approximately 1/2 a day on one letter.
Focus. Don’t make the LOR about you. Tell the reviewer only the necessary information about who you are so that you can best describe the mentee and their qualifications. This is not the space to outline all of your training, publications and experiences!
It gets easier. Writing LORs will always take time, but you will figure out a style and flow. Having a template with some consistent language (e.g. how you introduce yourself, what sort of program/class the mentee participated in) makes the process easier and more manageable. However, you absolutely must personalize the letter. For those who do not personalize, it is quite obvious during review and can severely harm your mentee in the application review process.
Dutt, K. (2019). Avoid Implicit Gender Bias in Recommendation Letters. Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, The Earth Institute of Columbia University.
The University of Arizona Commission on the Status of Women. Avoiding gender bias in reference writing. https://csw.arizona.edu/sites/default/files/avoiding_gender_bias_in_letter_of_reference_writing.pdf