The Time-Consuming Privilege of Writing a Thoughtful Letter of Recommendation for a Student


It will soon be application season (at least for students considering going to grad school in physics) for graduating seniors. As a consequence, I’ve decided to borrow some useful guidelines from my colleagues regarding letters of recommendation/reference:

I have served on the undergraduate admissions committee at Caltech for three years as well as the physics graduate admissions committee here at MSU for two years. This has given me an opportunity to have read many letters. Since coming to MSU in 2014, I have also had many opportunities to write letters on behalf of students from the perspective of an instructor and research supervisor.

What is the purpose of a letter of recommendation/reference?

In my experience, a letter mostly provides context to a student’s performance and make their work more visible in a way that doesn’t occur elsewhere in the application. If I was the instructor for a course, then it is to help explain, for example, what the class was and what the grade means. If I was a research supervisor, then it is to discuss, for example, what work was done and how the student fit into the group. A lot of this depends critically on what the letter is for – grad school, med school, competitive fellowship, internship, job in industry, etc.  In the context of a physics graduate school application, I view my main role as boosting a student’s application signal to noise ratio. I want to make sure that at least one person on the review committee reads and considers all of the subtleties of the student’s application. Of course the final decision will ultimately be based on the track record established by the student.

What are the contents of a letter of recommendation?

The general format of the one to two page letter is the following:
  1. Official MSU/NSCL letterhead
  2. Address and title of where the letter is being submitted
  3. The student’s full name in bold
  4. Some context about my position as well as how well I know the applicant
  5. Some context about our relationship
  6. Specific accomplishments of the student that are directly relevant to the position being applied to
  7. An evaluation of the student in direct response to specific requests from the potential employer/school/committee, including a comparison to current/other/previous applicants if appropriate and applicable
  8. A conclusive statement about my level of support and enthusiasm for the student as well as an invitation to contact me for additional information
  9. My signature

Everything that I write is what I perceive to be true, is based on the my own first hand experiences with the student and, if I only know them from a class, depends critically on the information that they provide me. If the student and I agree that a letter from me is useful, then I’ll certainly put in the investment to provide a thoughtful letter.

What are examples of the ways in which an applicant is to be evaluated?

The institution/organization that is requesting the letter typically requests specific information about the applicant. Some examples are here:

  • American Association of Medical Colleges
  • NSF Graduate Research Fellowships
  • Physics Graduate school across the US:
    1. In what capacity have you known the applicant?
    2. How long have you known the applicant?
    3. How you would rank this applicant?
    4. What cohort is this ranking relative to?
    5. What is the quality of the applicant’s academic or creative achievements, including material not apparent on the official transcript?
    6. What is the applicant’s scholarly or creative potential and promise for advanced and original work?
    7. What are aspects of the applicant’s personality, character, integrity, and motivation that are pertinent to graduate study?
    8. What particularly qualifies this applicant for graduate study?
    9. What are the applicant’s accomplishments in research or independent projects?
    10. How does the applicant compare to other students you know who have attended similar schools?
    11. Can the student clearly communicate ideas in written and spoken English?
    12. Do you have any reservations about the applicant’s ability to succeed?
    13. Does applicant have the intellectual capability, experimental ability, fundamental training, creativity, and motivation to be successful as a graduate student?
    14. Would you encourage this applicant to do doctoral research under your supervision?
    15. What are the applicant’s academic strengths and weaknesses?

What is required for me to write a letter of recommendation/reference?

I am always happy to write a letter on behalf of a student. It often gives me a chance to learn more about a student that I normally would not get a chance to know, particularly if I only know them from class. It is also an important part of my job as an instructor and/or a research supervisor, which I take very seriously. In my experience, four things are essential for me to write a letter of recommendation/reference:

  1. Seriousness towards the application process on the part of the student
  2. All of the relevant information required for the application from the student as one email/dropbox link
  3. Respect for my time on the part of the student
  4. Time for me to write, revise, and submit the letter

In addition, for a strong letter of recommendation from me specifically for physics graduate school, the student typically has also (one or more of the following)

  • done qualitatively well in the class in some way that is unique (if applicable)
  • shown independence, self-motivation, and self-determination
  • expressed genuine joy in figuring things out and solving problems
  • exhibited a desire and aptitude for learning new things
  • an uncontrollable sense of constructive dissatisfaction and/or self-improvement
  • demonstrated a professional level of time management skills
  • an ability to develop & communicate a concise, cogent, logical, & honest argument based on critical testing & observation
  • started and completed a research project
  • taught me something new
  • had success in an unstructured environment
  • documented the work that they have done during the time that I’ve known them

What is meant by “seriousness towards the application”?

Four things:

  1. The student has started the application process early and is making the time in their busy schedules to assemble a strong application package.
  2. The student has read and followed the instructions on this page.
  3. The student follows through on completing and submitting the application.
  4. The student sends me an update with the outcomes from all of the applications.

What is meant by “all of the relevant information required for the application”? 

  1. CV/résumé (jobs, skills, languages, trainings, publications, etc.)
  2. A near final if not final personal statement(s)/application essay – very important
  3. A list of places being applied to as well as a reason why each of those places
  4. Instructions for sending the letters (deadlines, format, does it need to be signed?, is a physical copy required?, links to urls, email addresses, SASE if necessary)
  5. A description of what is being applied for
  6. A description of why I am being asked to write this letter
  7. A list of other people writing letters on your behalf and why they were chosen
  8. A bullet-point list of things that I specifically should talk about in my letter
  9. A copy of a current transcript (unofficial is fine)
  10. MCAT/GRE scores (if available)
  11. The name and title of the person who will receive the completed letter, if relevant.
  12. Any forms that need to be filled out or signed, with information about the applicant (address, birth date, etc.) already filled in.’

For my letter to have credibility, it has to be congruent with the information listed in the application.

What is meant by  “respect for my time”?  

  1. I am asked to write a letter as soon as possible. I will provide feedback on what the letter would be like for the student to evaluate.
  2. If I and the student agree that it would be appropriate for me to write a letter, then I am sent all of the materials listed above (all at once) at least 6 Fridays before the earliest deadline. A good way to do this is to send me a link to a Dropbox/Box/Google Drive link which contains all of the requested information as well as a spreadsheet containing the deadlines and letter submission instructions.
  3. Follow through on completing and submitting the application. If I submit a letter for an application that the student did not take seriously and/or did not complete & submit, then I have wasted my time.
  4. If I submit a letter for an application, then I have become invested in the process and would appreciate knowing the outcome.

How much time do I need to write a letter?

During last year’s application season, I had the privilege of writing 40 letters. Based on that experience, I learned that:

  • creating, proofreading, revising, and submitting a “new” letter from scratch takes 3 hours on average (longer if I know the student well, shorter if I don’t know the student well)
  • updating, proofreading, revising, and submitting an “old” letter based on a previous letter takes about 1 hour on average (longer if I know the student well, shorter if I don’t know the student well)
  • the total time that it took me to write these letters was about 60 hours or about 1.5 work weeks
  • 34 of the 40 letters were due between December 15 and January 15, which is also when I was in China for a week and spending Christmas with my family
  • in order to do a good job and deliver nearly all of the letters on time, I had to unfairly steal time away from my family and that I would never subject them to this ever again!

Good Luck!