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I’m writing my first recommendation letter for a student (for grad school) who is excellent. I’d like to, thus, write a very good recommendation letter. Are there informal guidelines for writing recommendation letters so that my letter does not come off as insincere and reflects the student’s quality?

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    What country are you in and where are they applying? Nov 4 '21 at 21:23
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    "This student is so good that I asked a question on academia.stackexchange.com to learn more about how to write the strongest possible letter for this student."
    – JaS
    Nov 7 '21 at 3:38
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    @user220704 That letter is also mentioned in one of the answers; just to repeat my comment on that answer, while this letter is a classic and a great story, on the off chance someone reading is reading this thread very literally, don't actually write a letter like the John Nash one for someone if you want them to succeed. That only works if you are extremely well-respected in the field and you never call anyone a genius, and might not even work in the modern world with the amount of competition for jobs and the needing to be able to justify hiring decisions objectively.
    – Andrew
    Nov 7 '21 at 19:03
  • @AzorAhai-him- : USA and MIT/Stanford
    – pve
    Nov 8 '21 at 18:29
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Since you've never seen such letters, you don't know what they usually contain. Ask one of your senior colleagues for examples of letters, imitate them, and then ask that senior colleague to give you feedback. Mentoring is one of the jobs of senior faculty.

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    Yes, getting advice from experienced people about letter-writing is the only way to get the benchmarking/calibration right. :) Nov 4 '21 at 20:56
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    While this is certainly a good idea, I think the premise of this site is that people want our advice, and have probably already considered asking their contacts.
    – cag51
    Nov 4 '21 at 20:59
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    @cag51 No length of answers can replace a conversation with a colleague. Nov 4 '21 at 21:09
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    @WolfgangBangerth you are a senior faculty too right? Can you post one such letter?
    – Allure
    Nov 6 '21 at 4:21
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    @Allure It's a bad idea and unethical to publicly post a confidential letter about an actual student. One could try anonymizing letter so it does not contain identifying personal information about the student. But I imagine that this would necessarily mean removing or obscuring the useful parts of any good letter, which are going to tend to include identifying information since they will talk about that specific person's accomplishments in detail.
    – Andrew
    Nov 6 '21 at 20:02
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If you can write about what the student has done, rather than just the grades in courses, it is a plus.

Any special projects? Any leadership actions? Are they self directed? Do they have insight? Are they helpful to others? Have they done independent study, alone or in small groups?

Would you take them on for a research project without qualification? Can you confidently predict their success, in school and beyond?

But itemize actual actions when possible.

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    May I ask what you mean by "leadership actions"? Nov 4 '21 at 21:14
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    @JochenGlueck, I don't have an example, but there are a lot of possibilities. I'd intend academic leadership. Perhaps organizing study groups, inviting scholars to talk, or even suggesting such. Big world.
    – Buffy
    Nov 4 '21 at 21:42
  • Thanks for your explanation! Nov 4 '21 at 21:44
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    @JochenGlueck I've once seen leadership actions close up, just once, in a 45 year career. I was running a large group of RF engineers, and a new student came into the group. Within 3 months, he was organising a small group of said engineers. Experienced engineers were deferring to him and he was de facto running them, organising their work and their use of internal and outside resources. Three years later, he left and became a Technical Director for (admittedly) a relatively small company, and just went stratospheric from there. Not a repeatable example, but you'll know it when you see it.
    – Neil_UK
    Nov 5 '21 at 15:51
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    @NeilUK That's god level leadership. :) But on a more mundane level, taking point on some issue which affects more than just yourself is worth mentioning for a starting point.
    – Graham
    Nov 7 '21 at 0:29
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Think about how you know the student is excellent -- what sets them apart. In particular, if this is the first recommendation you've written, that suggests you may have a limited basis of comparison (to other students you've worked with). The difficulty you have in conveying your opinion may be related to an underlying difficulty in justifying your opinion.

A useful guideline is show, don't tell. Here, this means it is much more convincing to cite distinctive, concrete, factual observations about the student than to pile on generic superlatives. For example you could note if they are going above and beyond course objectives, are doing research-level thinking, or are "the only student in our department to accomplish X in the last N years".

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Quantify their rank

I'm in a hard science field, so the answer may be less relevant to humanities letters. I have found that the strongest letters highlight specific interactions and anecdotes about positive qualities, but most importantly rank the student relative to a distribution. For example

I have been teaching Physics 101 and Engineering 305 for the past 4 years, and this student is easily among the top 5 of the ~200 students I have taught.

If you've never written a recommendation letter before, you probably have a smaller pool to compare against. In principle that might weaken your letter some, but really that's important information to your reviewer. A letter ranking the candidate top 5 out of 20 years of experience vs 2 years is legitimately more weighty.

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The main thing to remember is to explain the basis for your evaluation and give a sensible comparison of the student relative to the cohort. It is not necessary to give detailed information on grades (since that will be given separately), but you should give some underlying objective information that explains your assessment that the student is excellent. What have they done that excels relative to what you expect for students of that cohort? What skills does this student have that other students in the cohort do not have? Etc.

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You could always emulate the style of Richard Duffin when he wrote a recommendation letter for John Nash.

This is to recommend Mr. John F. Nash, Jr. Who has applied for entrance to the graduate college at Princeton. Mr. Nash is nineteen years old and is graduating from Carnegie Tech in June. He is a mathematical genius.

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    This is a classic letter, but since sometimes people read things literally on the internet, of course you should not actually do this. The reason this example is so striking is that it isn't a standard letter you'd write for a strong student. This only works if you are famous and extremely well-regarded with a long track record of strong recommendations, and you only get to do it at most one time in your career. (I'm not even sure this would work in the modern era even if you were recommending a genius, it has a little bit of an "old boys club" feel to it)
    – Andrew
    Nov 6 '21 at 18:27
  • -1 for the same reasons as @Andrew, plus the fact that this letter is only remarkable in hindsight. Had Nash not achieved so much, this letter would have been gross hyperbole without substance. Letter-readers need more than just your word.
    – Eric
    Nov 8 '21 at 22:59
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I think it's important to show and not tell. While most people simply use adjectives to describe, it would be great if you can show concrete examples, past interactions etc that you had with him/her, which can drive your point across better.

Do also say, what difference did he/she make. What could not have been done without their attributes ?

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