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What Does the Perfect Recommendation Letter Demand? Letter Writing Tips from Expert Scientists

Recommendation letters are pretty important- there’s no denying that. When you’re an undergrad, you’d need one for your application to graduate school; when you’re a Ph.D. holder or student, you’d need one for fellowship and job applications; even when you’re senior in your field, you’d need one to qualify for promotions or awards. Recommendation letters can essentially make or break your future.

The next time that you’ve been tasked with the burden of writing one, make sure to stop and put yourself in the shoes of the student or employee who has reached out to you. Surely, they hold immense respect for you, which is why they chose you over every other person in their life. Be sure to honor that.

Often, recommendation letters seem generic, which can have adverse effects on the future of the prospective candidate. Ponder upon ways by which you can make the letter as personal and effective as possible.

If you need extra help, follow the advice of these scientists who ensure that every recommendation letter speaks volumes to the reader about the candidate in question.

1. Create a Process- Elizabeth Nance

Johns Hopkins University | Dr. Nance posing for a photograph

Dr. Nance is an associate professor of chemical engineering at the University of Washington. She states that, in her role as an assistant professor, for the past five years, she is required to write 15-20 letters of recommendation per year. Owning this as an integral part of her job, Dr. Nance has designed a process to aid her, starting off with the student submitting a request before the letter is needed.

She does not accept every request, denying only those cases in which she feels like she doesn’t know the student enough to write something compelling. If/when a request is accepted, the student’s are required to submit their CV, their application essay draft, along with notes on why they are applying for the opportunity in question.

Dr. Nance dedicates a significant amount of time to each letter, ensuring that she comments on the student’s traits outside of the classroom that will be beneficial to outline. Creating a process, she claims, has created ease for her and her students, who are aware of exactly what requesting a letter of recommendation from her entails.

2. Manage Expectations- Alex Shalek

MIT | Dr. Shalek  posing for a photograph

Dr. Shalek goes for a more personal approach when writing his letters. An associate professor of chemistry at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Dr. Shalek states that a good recommendation letter speaks to the reader.

To be able to pen down the candidate perfectly on paper, the professor has an in-depth, frank conversation with the said candidate, to determine how they would like the letter to be read in the context of their other application documents, such as their letter of motivation or application essay.

In case of candidates that he is not well acquainted to, Dr. Shalek points out that he will only be able to comment on their class performance for lack of information on the candidate’s character or achievements. For colleagues, however, he lays strong emphasis on their achievements and contributions to their field.

3. Tell Detailed Stories- Dino Di Carlo

UCLA | Dr. Di Carlo posing for a photograph

Dr. Di Carlo is a professor of bioengineering at the University of California, who believes that nothing speaks to a reader more than stories. He states that storytelling is a compelling technique that makes a letter of recommendation sound more personal, thereby making it effective. So, instead of blandly listing character traits, it is better to back them up with stories that make the accolades seem more genuine.

For example, instead of saying that a particular candidate is an exceptional debater, you write that “the candidate’s superlative debating skills became the talk of the college right after orientation, earning him a leading role in the debate society in no time”. Dr. Di Carlo also makes sure to highlight the points that he wants the reader to retain so that they don’t have to keep an array of nuanced stories in their mind during the selection process.

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