I teach two medium size groups (~100 each), supervise BSc and MSc dissertations, and have ~35 tutees. When applications to postgraduate programmes open, I tend to receive a number of requests for reference letters due to a combination of several students asking me to write letters for them, and them applying to a number of places (usually 30+ students × 5+ programmes), so I need to spend quite some time writing and submitting reference letters.

Are there any guidelines in terms of how many reference letters lecturers in UK should write per year?

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    What does your department say? Generally, if you do not have to write a letter for all, it is a good idea to only write LOR for students you can write something helpful for. A single strong paragraph with demonstrated achievements for someone you had only a short time beats a lukewarm two page letter. Jan 16, 2021 at 19:12
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    @CaptainEmacs In a department meeting, the HoD said "write as many as you can", keep it as short as possible, but try to personalise your letters ... So, I think there is no real guidelines in my department. We actually try to keep it to one page in most instances due to the large number of requests.
    – Lecturer
    Jan 16, 2021 at 19:19
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    Your literal question is about "how many are expected". You don't ask for advice about how to handle a large number. I suggest you edit if that is your real concern. Do you want advice about how not to write letters, or about how to manage the numbers?
    – Buffy
    Jan 16, 2021 at 19:30
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    And, if you are looking for advice on preparing a large number, it would be useful to know whether you have TAs who may have closer contact with individuals than you do.
    – Buffy
    Jan 16, 2021 at 19:50
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    If there are really so many, you might suggest that an admin be assigned to take care of the uploading etc. Although this could be tricky because the darn forms often ask for additional ratings on the upload form. How we have handled this is that the students enter departmentreferences@university.edu and the admin manages that account.
    – Dawn
    Jan 16, 2021 at 19:50

2 Answers 2


Your director says "As many as you can" - in my philosophy these would be those where I think the letter would easily help and, as such, easily written.

  1. Create a spreadsheet with comments, and evaluations, possibly link collections if that's easier than to search through mail.

  2. Use automated template generation for the reference letter outline, possibly electronically added signature, and write short, crisp paragraphs on what impressed you about the student. One, at most two paragraphs are perfectly enough if you have something good to say. It's like feedback for an essay. "This student performed well because they ..., were able to ... and showed skilful handling of ... Whatever is relevant, give facts and a brief evaluation, this is perfectly fine.

  3. Any awards, just mention them.

  4. End on a standardized positive note. This is not a tenure reference. If you have to write many references, you cannot spend much time on refined formulations.

  5. Group the references together for the same website/uni and fire them off.

  6. For very strong students, usually it is possible (and pleasurable) to write more, as you will know more about what they have done. They can be treated in a more individualized fashion.

References for weak students, on the other hand, are very difficult to write, and so they will burn a lot more of your time if you want them to help at all; this will be like squeezing blood from a stone. I do not recommend doing that, unless you have some simple and strong thing to say about them and you wish to do so.

Although it's not up to you to decide whether they should proceed with a graduate education or not, if you yourself do not think they should continue, it is in your right to choose not to be part of the process in that case.


This is complementary to the answer of Captain Emacs.

For those students for whom your only contact is a class or two, tell them when they ask that your letter will need to be fairly pro-forma, describing the course and how they did in it. Tell them that other writers may have more valuable things to say about them. Then ask if they are still interested.

The best letters come from those with the most contact, I think. That may not be you. Make sure they understand that "full marks" may not be enough to judge future success.

This might cut the numbers down a bit and also permit you to give honest appraisals as far as you know about their likelihood of success.

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    I think this is good advice. Students may not always have a good understanding of how reference letters work, and who they can ask to write one. They may also be afraid to approach certain individuals. Providing some advice, guidance and encouragement here may reduce your workload and get the students stronger letters.
    – avid
    Jan 17, 2021 at 0:07

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