Are there examples of recommendations for first-time recommendation writers?

I've been asked to write a recommendation letter for a student applying to graduate school. I understand the general outline of what to include—my experience working with them, my assessment of their abilities—but it would be immensely helpful to see some examples to go off of and certain aspects I might want to mention, like Alex Lang's list of NSF grants.

2 Answers 2


When I first started writing letters of recommendation I would also have appreciated having examples to follow, but I think it's reasonable for people to be wary about supplying them. It's hard to write a completely generic one, and hard to justify the time spent. I recommend that you ask the people within your own department whom you consider to be good teachers and supportive advisers whether you can look at recent letters they have written for a range of students. Good letters, in my experience, are fundamentally about making fairly specific claims about the strengths of a student and backing them up with evidence that is as concrete as possible.

Here's the paragraph structure I typically use. My letters are usually 1.5 to 2 pages, depending on how strong the student is and how well I know them. Please also note that the way these letters are written will vary a lot, both by field and by country. I work at a university in the UK, and the letters I write are for students applying to postgraduate programmes in mathematics, computer science, and philosophy, mostly in the UK but also in the US and continental Europe, so YMMV.

  1. Introduction. "I am writing to recommend X for admission to the degree Y at the University of Z. Here's who I am. I've known the student for N years in contexts C1 and C2. They are very good for reasons R1, R2, R3. They have valuable personal quality P, and I strongly recommend them to you."
  2. Cohort ranking. This will usually be the ranking of that student within their cohort, i.e. students from the same degree course graduating in the same year. If they are very strong then I may compare them to graduates of that course over the past few years. My sense is that this is perceived as very valuable information by admissions committees.
  3. Highlights of the transcript. In this paragraph I flag up a few courses in which the student did exceptionally well and which are relevant to the programme they are applying for. The department they're applying to will have their transcript, so I concentrate on explaining why the results are so good (e.g. difficulty of material).
  4. Project highlight. If the student has done advanced work with me, then I often include an additional paragraph explaining what they did and how it makes them suitable for the programme they're applying for.
  5. Contextualisation of results. Depending on where the student is applying, and their personal circumstances, I supply a range of different types of context. For example, if I am writing a letter for a student applying to a programme in a different country, I may explain some basic things about academic conventions in the UK (e.g. 75 is a very good mark [grade], not a very bad one!). This can also be the point at which to supply more personal context, like why the student has one term of bad marks (but obviously only do this with the student's consent).
  6. Character and overall assessment. Here I write something about the student's character, interests etc. that is relevant to their future studies, e.g. motivation, dedication, focus, diligence (this should be supported by evidence, either in this paragraph or previous ones). I then sum up and recapitulate that I recommend them to the programme they are applying for.
  • Is there a place I can find examples of such recommendations for Engineering and Computer Science?
    – Test
    Commented Oct 16, 2023 at 21:04
  • 2
    @Test It looks like you want a ready to copy-paste solution. I would say, if you do not want or have no time to write---it would be honest to refuse the request.
    – yarchik
    Commented Oct 18, 2023 at 10:56

Apart from specific talking-points that surely will vary depending on the academic discipline...

... when I, as Dir Grad Studies or as any sort of Grad Admissions committee member look at letters, what I want to see is estimates/predictions for the future. That is, sure, good undergrad grades (for example) are obviously a positive thing, but only loosely correlated with success in a PhD program. That is, some people are non-conformist as undergrads, for various reasons, but/and will be energetic and decisive as grad students, finally being allowed to do what they'd wanted to do.

So, looking forward, rather than backward, is the most compelling thing to me, when I read letters of recommendation. Yes, of course, letter writers cannot predict the future, but those subtle perceptions of peoples' future potential are what I value.

Yes, if everything gets "fully objectified", so that there are "rubrics" for everything (a crude approximation to fairness?), it would become harder to explain why I'd view an application positively based on "reading between the lines". Sadly, yes, there is stunning injustice in the world, but/and, attempting to correct it by "rules" (or numerical rubrics) is insufficient, and often counterproductive. Sigh.

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