Three tips for writing a letter of recommendation

The Smart Scholar | Topics in Higher Education | Interfolio's Dossier

This post continues our series, The Smart Scholar.

With the spring semester now in full swing, I am sure many of you are starting to receive requests from mentees, students you have taught, and colleagues in the field to write letters of recommendation for them. While there are many technical aspects of writing letters of recommendations, in this post I share three practical tips for recommendation letter writers to consider before and during the letter writing process.

Know when to say no (and yes)

You might ask, “What does saying no have to do with writing a recommendation?” I believe that when you are asked to write a letter of recommendation you should consider the following:

  • Do I know this colleague, student, or friend well enough to write a convincing letter?
  • Do I have the time to write the letter?
  • Am I the best fit as a letter writer for this candidate?

These questions are important and I pose them as someone who has sat on scholarship committees for students and search committees for faculty—it is very clear when a letter writer does not have a close relationship with the applicant. This is unfortunate for the candidate because there may have been a better letter writer who could speak with more expertise and conviction about their qualifications for the award, job, and/or university admittance.

Establish a timeline

In many instances, individuals who are seeking letters of recommendation are often looking to advance their careers and/or education. Consequently, the application process can be a stressful and intense process for an individual to complete.In some instances, a colleague or student has approached me about writing a letter of recommendation, only to give me an unrealistic window of time to complete it. Based on these past experiences I suggest sharing the following timeline with anyone looking for a letter of recommendation:

  • I will need two to three weeks to write the letter.
  • After writing the letter (#1) I will need two weeks to edit the letter.
  • After editing the letter (#2) I will need one week to either submit the letter electronically or mail the letter to the appropriate person.

Having this timeline gives me more than enough time to complete the task and provides some wiggle room in case I get busy with other tasks. More importantly, it helps the person requesting the letter know how much time they need to give me from the deadline of the application. I think being transparent in these situations is important so that everyone is clear about how long it will take for the generation of the letter of recommendation.

Ask for a draft of the letter

In my own practice of asking for letters of recommendation, I have come to understand that letter writers are very busy people. Therefore, I will typically send a draft of a letter to the person I’m asking for their recommendation so that it can help them in the letter writing process. Now reflecting, if you are asked to write a letter, you should request a draft template for the following reasons:

  • Having a draft allows you to know the proper angle to take in your letter that speaks to the requirements for the position, school, or award the individual you are supporting is seeking.
  • You can potentially cut down on the time it takes to write your letter as you have somewhere to start.

What other strategies do you have when writing a letter of recommendation? Please feel free to share with me on Twitter (@ramongoings).


In addition to an online platform for universities to manage faculty reviews, Interfolio’s Dossier enables scholars to collect, curate, polish and send out their materials at all stages throughout their academic professional path. Learn more about Dossier here.

Author Bio: Dr. Ramon B. Goings is an assistant professor of educational leadership at Loyola University Maryland. His research examines gifted/high-achieving Black male academic success PreK-PhD, diversifying the teacher and school leader workforce, and the student experience and contributions of historically Black colleges and universities to the higher education landscape. As a writing coach and editor, Dr. Goings enjoys supporting the scholarly development of doctoral students and professors in higher education. For more information about Dr. Goings, please visit his website and follow him on Twitter (@ramongoings).