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Recommendation letters for a university program or graduate school

Back to: University recommendation letters

Before you begin

Ask the student for a copy of their application, information about the program, deadlines, contact information and how the institution wants to receive the information. It is also helpful (especially if they are not currently taking a class of yours!) if they supply specifics from the courses they attended, such as their grades, significant assignments and projects.

Writing the letter

The salutation should be ‘Dear Ms Collins’ or ‘Dear Mr Frye’. If they have an academic title, use that: Dear Dr Collins or Dear Professor Frye. English does not use two titles together so you do not use ‘Ms Professor’ or ‘Dr Professor’. If you don’t have a name, address the letter to ‘Dear Sir or Madam’ or just begin without a salutation.

The first paragraph of your letter explains your position at the university, your connection to the student and how long you have known him/her.

The following paragraph(s) contain your experience with the student and your assessment of his/her abilities. Below are guidelines for the types of information university admission offices and program directors are most interested in. They are to help you think through your experience with the student. You certainly don’t need to use them all, but the more specifics you can supply, the more useful your letter will be.

Intellectual Assessment

  • How would you rate the applicant’s intellectual ability?
  • Does he/she show intellectual curiosity?
  • Does the student absorb information quickly and understand complex, abstract concepts?

Communication Skills

  • Is the student able to write clear, well-organized and strongly presented arguments?
  • Is the student articulate and does he/she actively contribute to class discussions?
  • Is the student’s level of English appropriate for university academic work?

Personal Qualities

  • Is the student motivated, self-disciplined and able to work independently?
  • Does he/she seem mature and able to adjust to new situations?
  • Is the student comfortable interacting with others?

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Field of Study

  • How would you rate the student’s interest in and knowledge of their field of study?
  • Do you know if they have had ‘hands-on’ experience in their field through research, laboratory work or internships?

Finally, if you were on the selection committee, would you choose this student?

For the wording of the actual recommendation, you can use any of the following or one of your own:

'I am happy to provide a reference for (student’s name).'

'I highly recommend (student’s name).'

'I sincerely believe that (student’s name) will be an asset to your program.'

'I can recommend (student’s name) without reservation.'

Final paragraph

Offer to answer questions or provide more information.

Close with: Sincerely, (US) or Yours sincerely (UK)

Your name with degrees and academic credentials

Your Position and Department

Phone number

University address

Email address

Back to: University recommendation letters