Academic letter of recommendation — How to guide

A strong letter goes beyond a resume’s flat descriptions and adds an evaluative element to what is otherwise just a list of tasks performed. 

by LegalZoom Staff
updated May 11, 2023 ·  2min read

The modern job market is competitive, and applicants must work hard to stand out from an ever-growing pool of potential employees. Letters of recommendation play an essential role in this process, and can push the decision on a candidate from a maybe to a yes.

Writing personal letters of recommendation takes time, and it can be difficult to know where to start or what to include. We've gathered some tips to help you write an effective letter.

Before you agree to write a letter

First ask about any pending submission deadlines. If you can’t complete the letter within the available time frame, inform the candidate immediately so he or she can seek alternatives.

Academic letters of recommendation are generally provided by individuals who have witnessed a student’s participation in both class and extracurricular activities, and provide organized and frank discussions of an applicant’s abilities and achievements.

Before agreeing to write a letter, consider your acquaintance with the person requesting it. Are you familiar with their work? Do you have a favorable impression of their experience and capacity? Can you honestly recommend them?

If the answer to any of these questions is no, have a candid discussion with the candidate and try to resolve your concerns. If you are unable to do so, suggest that there may others better suited to serve as the applicant’s advocate.

Essential information to include

Although it seems self-aggrandizing, it’s important to emphasize your own credentials when drafting an academic letter of recommendation. The more “important” you seem, the more your opinion will matter to the prospective institution.

Show the reader you’ve known the candidate for long enough to have formed an educated and cogent opinion. Communicate your confidence in and support of the applicant and try to provide some insight into his or her personal attributes. 
Structuring Your Letter

Though it's important to customize the document to fit your needs, the standard structure of a letter of recommendation is (and should remain) as follows:

  • The author’s credentials provided in the letterhead, signature block, and/or opening paragraph.
  • The relationship between the author and the candidate described in the opening paragraph. 
  • The author’s opinion of the candidate introduced in the first paragraph and reiterated in the closing.
  • The candidate’s attributes discussed in two or three concise paragraphs, and one or two discrete personality traits addressed in each such paragraph.

Making your letter personalized

If you are struggling to make the letter more personal, ask the candidate for additional information about him or herself (e.g., transcripts, writing samples, or a short narrative). 

Be thoughtful about revising the enclosed letter. A smart reviewer knows to read between the lines of a letter of recommendation, and will consider what your letter does not say. Phrasing can reveal much about an author’s true knowledge and feelings.

A few more tips

  • Your letter should be between one and two pages.
  • Rather than writing “To Whom It May Concern,” Ask the applicant for a more specific recipient. A general address makes both you and the candidate look unprofessional and unprepared. 
  • Proofread the letter carefully. 
  • Consider including your contact information below your signature. This will allow the interviewer to get in touch with any follow-up questions and will solidify in his or her mind your enthusiasm for the candidate.
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This portion of the site is for informational purposes only. The content is not legal advice. The statements and opinions are the expression of the author, not LegalZoom, and have not been evaluated by LegalZoom for accuracy, completeness, or changes in the law.