How to write a letter of recommendation for a professor or teacher
Writing a letter of recommendation for a professor is a rare and precious opportunity for a student to show his or her appreciation for a current or former mentor, advisor, or teacher. Not many students get that opportunity, and those who do should embrace it and make the best of it. It is one of the most significant displays of gratitude you’ll ever have a chance to perform.
Professors usually ask for a letter of recommendation from students when they apply for tenure or promotion, and it is usually not the professor who contacts the student but the department chair, school principal, or dean, to whom the professor gave the student’s name. The letter usually describes the professor’s tenure or promotion application and asks the student to describe his or her experience with that teacher.
The student is of course free to decline that invitation, but unless there is a compelling reason to do so, you should never decline that invitation. The professor has chosen you as a recommender probably because you took his class, worked in his lab, or had him as an advisor, and he probably wrote letters of recommendation on your behalf in the past. Refusing to return the favor without a good reason is rude, unprofessional, and ungrateful.
Nevertheless, writing a letter of recommendation for a professor can be an awkward if not intimidating experience, as the roles are reversed and the student is asked to evaluate his teacher’s performance. The following tips will help you to make the best of that experience.
Note: we use the words teacher and professor interchangeably, and we switch between male and female third persons to maintain gender neutrality.
1. Be honest but selective. Highlight all the positive aspects of the teacher’s performance, but leave out the negative unless they are too serious to be ignored. Don’t make anything up—everything you say must be the truth. At the same time, you don’t necessarily have to disclose anything negative. Remember, this is a letter of recommendation.
2. Don’t try to evaluate your professor’s professional work. It is likely that you are not expert enough to decide whether the professor’s research is of high quality, and your recommendation will lose some credibility if you try to claim authority you don’t have. Focus instead on the professor as a mentor and teacher.
3. Credit some of your success to your teacher. If your teacher chose you to write a recommendation for her, you are probably one of her favorite students and you have probably done well in your academic or professional career. Credit some of that success to your teacher and explain how her support, guidance, and/or teaching have helped you to achieve and succeed.
4. Make sure your letter is formal and dignified. Write in grammatically correct English, don’t use slang, and provide your full contact information. The letter you write reflects both on you and on the person for whom you write it, so make sure you send a positive message.
5. Make sure the letter got to its destination. If you send the letter by mail, send it registered or certified, or use a courier service. If you send it by email, ask for a return receipt or confirmation of delivery. This letter is too important to your professor, and you don’t want to risk it getting lost in the mail, electronic or otherwise.
We’ve written a sample letter to serve as a reference. Please do not copy it but use it to guide you as you write your letter in your own words.
Do you need help writing a letter of recommendation for your teacher, professor, or advisor?
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