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A student asked me to write a letter of recommendation for graduate school admission in London and the student insisted that I include a short biography describing my job title and qualifications. I find this information is a little out of place. First, my degree is in progress, so I do not have any impressive qualifications. Second, I think such letters are intended to introduce the applicant, not the writer.

  • Is this common practice to include a biography of the writer in letters of recommendation?
  • Where does this information typically appear in the document? In the opening paragraph? As a separate, attached document?
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    On a side note, have you considered telling the student to get a recommendation letter from a more senior faculty member? Not that I have anything against graduate students, but I suspect a letter from them is not taken as seriously as one from a faculty member (maybe not by everyone, but some is enough). You can tell this faculty member what to write (or at least your impressions of the student). – Ben Webster Apr 7 '12 at 18:25
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    Ben's comment is an important point. One option is to co-sign the letter with a faculty member, where the reader's understanding will be that you are describing the situation and the faculty member is vouching for your judgement. At the very least, you need to have someone more senior read the letter before you send it, since it's easy for an inexperienced letter writer to write something that is intended to help but turns out to be ineffective. – Anonymous Mathematician Apr 7 '12 at 20:26
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You are right, the point of the letter is entirely the candidate, any sentence(s) about yourself should be entirely to the point of facilitating communication about the candidate. I was told in school that all histories tell you as much about the culture that wrote them as the culture they describe, so you need to take both into account when you read them. I suppose this is true of reference letters as well. It's like introducing yourself before you ask an academic you don't know a question one-on-one over coffee at a conference – sometimes there's no need, but sometimes it's essential to framing the question & making the most of the other person's time & answer.

I have never been explicitly asked for a biography beyond "how do you know the candidate, for how long, and in what capacity". However, the UK is under a lot of legal pressure concerning letters of reference because some are so much better than others, not necessarily due to the candidate, but possibly due to how knowledgeable the writer is about writing letters. Possibly candidates deserve some credit for picking good letter writers, but this could be hard particularly for very junior candidates. So having guidance for writing a letter is useful, it's letting all letter writers know good practice by previous letter writers.

Personally I include biographical information (not a full biography) where I think it may be helpful and when I am trying to write a strong letter. Similarly, I also give information about our institution where I think it might not be known and be helpful. Examples: if I am writing a US institution from the UK, I let them know that I have attended US institutions & know what their programmes are like. Sometimes if I know someone well in the department I may point that out in the letter so that whoever is doing the search has the option of going to ask that person how seriously to take my opinion if they want to.

I put this at the end of the first paragraph or possibly as a stand-alone second paragraph, in advance of offering my verbose opinion of the candidate, so that the reader can have that information in mind when they see what my opinion is. The first sentence of the first paragraph says who the letter is for & for what position. The second sentence is my one-sentence summary of my recommendation. The third (or the second paragraph) is in what capacity I am writing the letter. That's where biographical details might be useful.

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Yes, this is relatively common. (In my opinion, not common enough.)

Recommendation letters carry more weight if he reader knows the writer's qualifications. In particular, letters about qualification for graduate school carry more weight if the reader has some sense of the writer's track record for judging students' research ability. (This is why letters from senior faculty are more valued — not because of their vast research experience, but because they've presumably seen and evaluated more students.) The best way for the reader to understand your track record is to tell them.

But briefly, because as you suggest, the letter isn't about you.

I don't think there's a standard way to do this. Some people put their bio early in the letter, say in the second paragraph (because the first paragraph is the actual recommendation). I put mine in a footnote on the last page.

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    I'd strongly recommend putting it at the end. At the end, it can come across as useful in a humble way ("I know you may not have heard of me, so here's some background"), while it can seem more offensive near the beginning ("Before I go into detail about the student I am recommending, let me first recount how great I am"). – Anonymous Mathematician Apr 7 '12 at 20:22
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    I'd agree with most of this—establishing your qualifications as a letter writer is important, but your primary mission is to recommend the candidate, not tell them all about yourself. – aeismail Apr 7 '12 at 21:41
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I would regard a separate biography as a bit odd; it's normal to sign with your current title (so I sign "Ben Webster, Assistant Professor of Mathematics") and of course, write on letterhead, so your current position is clear. In terms of context on how many students you've evaluated, you can slip that into various points in the letter. I would just stick a sentence into the second paragraph; one can unobtrusively give a short explanation of who you are mixed with the standard explanation of how you know the student.

  • +1. The writer should include as much of his biography as is necessary to place the recommendation in context. So the OP could write something like “I have been X's tutor for the past year, and in my five-year career I have not had a stronger student.” Works better than “I have been a tutor for 5 years...(later)...X was my best student.” – Matthew Leingang Oct 22 '14 at 18:50

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