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I am applying to graduate programs and one of my research professors will write me a recommendation letter, but wants me to write a rough outline of the letter. He will add his own content and edit all my work, but wants me to highlight things he might not know.

I am not sure how to write this outline, advice from people who have written graduate recommendations on what to put in one?

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This is pretty common, actually.

I'd suggest making it an outline, not a narrative. But use complete sentences so that he can copy paste if he wishes. Include the things from your background that you want highlighted in a letter. But, I'd probably not recommend writing glowing praise for yourself. Let him add that part.

You can also include some forward looking things, such as what you intend to focus on in grad school.

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When asking for a reference letter, it is customary to provide materials that will inform the recommender of what you've been up to. In addition to an example cover letter and CV, you might also provide a brief synopsis of work that's relevant to the recommendation. Think about what you'd want to show the graduate school:

  • evidence of research skills, like a research project or two - what did you do? How was it effective?

  • evidence of communication or leadership skills, like serving as an officer in a group or giving a presentation at a conference

  • evidence of work and life skills, like serving in an internship or volunteering

Providing that to a recommender will help them connect the dots between what they've seen from you and what else you've been up to. They can add the praise, clear statements about your skills and dedication, and so on.


That said, while it sounds like the recommender will write the letter, in the future you should know that a similar practice exists where recommenders will ask their students to write the letter, make superficial changes, and then send it off. There are three big issues with this practice:

  1. It's unethical to purport to send someone else's writing under the recommender's name in a situation where the words are assumed to be the recommender's own.

  2. The recommender is performing a professional duty in writing recommendations for students and colleagues from time to time. They can choose who they recommend and how strongly they do so, but writing the letter themselves is a courtesy.

  3. You probably can't write a letter that sounds like a faculty member wrote it. You don't have the general experience of being a faculty member or the specific experience of writing recommendation letters for others.

It doesn't sound like that's what is happening here, but I have worked with students in the gray space between "give me a brief of what you've been up to" and "write your letter," so it's good to know the dangers of the latter practice in a situation like this. Good luck!

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