I am a lecturer in a European university. A student from my department asked me to write a recommendation for a program somewhere in the US that he wants to attend.

I have read the horror stories about American recommendation letters, where apparently "He is not only quick at learning and good at solving complicated problems, but also with a logical and creative mind that enables him to raise some insightful views. I was also deeply impressed with his diligence and outstanding communication ability, compared with my other students." is considered lukewarm(!) and grounds for rejecting the applicant.

I have found a few sample recommendation letters and advice from different universities/people around the internet and I've used them as inspiration to spruce up what I had initially written. I have also asked colleagues, but understandably they mostly write letter for other European universities, where such superlative language would usually be reserved for sarcasm or toadying.

However, one thing that is rarely consistent is how formal the letter should be. More precisely:

  • How should I start the letter? "Dear colleagues"? "To whom it may concern"? "Esteemed organizers"? Similarly, how to end it? "(Best) regards"? "Sincerely yours"?
  • How to refer to the applicant in the letter? "Jane"? "Jane Doe"? "Mrs. Doe"?

I would rather not penalize the student because I do not understand foreign cultural norms.

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    I wrote several references for students who got into jobs / further study in the US and never have I resorted to such flowery language (using 17 words when one will do) in any of the references. Sticking to statements about punctuality, attitude and performance - all the reference letters fitted on one side of A4. But, of course, there is the possibility that they got in inspite of my reference...
    – Solar Mike
    Feb 22, 2019 at 13:25
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    I certainly sympathize with your situation as I've recently written some letters for a former work colleague for semi-academic type jobs, and I have found it difficult trying to avoid certain unintended interpretations while maintaining honesty about someone who I think is an excellent candidate. Nonetheless, I think the main issues with the italicized quote you provided is its non-specificity. Much better than the first sentence would be something like the following: (continued) Feb 22, 2019 at 16:23
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    "An example of his insightful views and creative approaches is his submitted paper An analysis of ... co-authored with X, which arose when, in a seminar presentation by X a year ago, he asked whether Technique T developed in a series of recent papers by Y could be suitably modified to answer a certain question raised by X in the seminar." Of course, the biggest problem is finding something like this to say. Feb 22, 2019 at 16:31
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    A good recommendation letter needs to first establish that the recommender has had extensive interactiont with the student. Most of the European recommendation letters that I've read don't succeed in this, either because the author hasn't actually spent much time working with the student or because the author doesn't think it important to include this in the letter. Students from smaller liberal arts colleges in the advantage have lots of opportunities to interact with faculty in this way and get better recommendation letters as a result. Feb 22, 2019 at 21:18
  • Just be sure to cover how you know them and their performance and accomplishments when working with you. You can have the student write a summary of this much for you even. Then the rest can be typical flowery praise or whatever. I barely look at them (except to check for anything negative) unless someone in on the borderline. Mar 25, 2019 at 14:58

2 Answers 2


Formality is the wrong parameter to worry about. Write at whatever level of formality you are most comfortable writing to your target audience. (But err on the side of formality, unless you know your reader personally.)

The parameter you should worry about is credibility. Your readers don't just want to know that you think highly of the student; we want to know why you think highly of the student, and why we should trust your judgement.

He is not only quick at learning and good at solving complicated problems, but also with a logical and creative mind that enables him to raise some insightful views. I was also deeply impressed with his diligence and outstanding communication ability, compared with my other students

This is not a terrible recommendation letter because the praise is insufficiently strong; it's a terrible recommendation letter because the praise is vague. Which complicated problems? How do you know he has a logical and creative mind? What insightful views? How did he show diligence? How and where did he demonstrate his outstanding communication ability? (And do you mean speaking, writing, or both?) And why should we trust your judgement at all? Be specific.

Without these details, this letter looks like flowery boilerplate that could be applied to anyone. The letter says nothing specific about the student, which makes me think the writer knows nothing specific about the student. Moreover, the letter says nothing about the writer's expertise, strongly suggesting that he expects to be trusted merely because he's old and tenured.

In short: Show, don't tell.

The "horror stories" page you link to gives similar advice. (Did you actually read it?)


I would suggest that unless you have other information, such as a relationship with the recipient, that you write more formally than informally.

But if you want to write the sort of purple prose in your example, you should also back it up with facts and examples. "...has great insight. For example, ...". If it is all just superlative generalities it might be too easy to dismiss, though I wouldn't think it was sarcasm in a letter of recommendation.

If you know the recipient, or have a reputation that implies that they know you and your work, then less formality might be fine. Some people will simply be believed based on their reputation.

But, lean toward facts and formality, I think. And note that if you praise someone who shouldn't be praised it will come back to haunt you and your institution.

Note: This is personal opinion about how I would react.

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