letter of recommendation

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

letter of recommendation
An ambiguous note (at best). (Getty Images)


A letter of recommendation is a letter, memorandum, or online form in which a writer (usually a person in a supervisory role) evaluates the skills, work habits, and achievements of an individual applying for a job, for admission to graduate school, or for some other professional position. Also called a letter of reference.

When requesting a letter of recommendation (from a former professor or supervisor, for instance), you should (a) clearly identify the deadline for submitting the letter and provide adequate notice, and (b) supply your reference with specific information about the position you're applying for.

Many prospective employers and graduate schools now require that recommendations be submitted online, often in a prescribed format.

See the observations below. Also see:


  • "What goes into a letter of recommendation? Usually the employer will state the position that you held, length of employment, your responsibilities in that position, and the positive qualities and initiative that you displayed while working for that firm."
    (Clifford W. Eischen and Lynn A. Eischen, Résumés, Cover Letters, Networking, and Interviewing. South-Western, 2010)

  • Writing Letters of Recommendation for Students
    - "You will be asked to write letters for students who hope to attend graduate school or are applying for jobs. These letters should contain the following information.
    * What courses the student took with you
    * Whether the student was an assistant of some kind
    * How well the student performed in the courses
    * Information on the character and intellectual abilities of the student
    * Your predictions about the future success of the student
    You should avoid mentioning anything about the student's race, religion, ethnicity, age, or other such matters."
    (Arthur Asa Berger, The Academic Writer’s Toolkit: A User’s Manual. Routledge, 2008)

    - "Don't assume that because a person is a professor he knows how to write a letter of recommendation. . . .

    "An effective letter of reference should show what makes you unique, what will distinguish you from the many others who may have grades similar to yours, what will make you an asset for whatever program or job you are being recommended for. Vague, unsubstantiated statements in a recommendation saying that you are wonderful are likely to hinder, not help you."
    (Ramesh Deonaraine, The Book of Wisdom for Students. Writers Club Press, 2002)

    - "In the example [from H.P. Grice, "Logic and Conversation," 1975], a professor is writing a letter of reference for a student who is applying for a teaching job in philosophy. The professor writes in the letter only that the candidate's grasp of English is excellent and that his class attendance has been regular. How would someone who is thinking of hiring the candidate interpret such a letter? Grice commented (p. 71) that she would reason that since the student is this professor's pupil, he cannot be failing to furnish more information because he does not possess it. Therefore, he must be 'wishing to impart information which he is reluctant to write down. The conclusion drawn is that the professor, by conversational implicature, is communicating to the reader of the letter the conclusion that the candidate is no good at philosophy."
    (Douglas N. Walton, Dialog Theory for Critical Argumentation. John Benjamins, 2007)

  • When to Say No
    "Intending to write a less-than-glowing letter and not informing the person who asked you of your intention is like an ambush. If you cannot write a good letter of recommendation, decline."
    (Robert W. Bly, Webster's New World Letter Writing Handbook. Wiley, 2004)

  • Recommendation Inflation
    "When it comes to recommendations for jobs, academe seems to have taken up permanent residence along the shores of Lake Wobegon. All of the applicants are above average—way above. . . .

    "'Writing a letter of recommendation for someone you want to promote is like putting makeup on,' says Lennard J. Davis, head of the English department at Illinois-Chicago. 'You have to accentuate what looks good and cover up the blemishes.' It's an art form both in the writing and the reading. 'You are entering the world of hermeneutics and interpretation.'

    "Got a student who lacks focus and keeps overreaching? Call him 'ambitious.' Looking for a nice way to describe an antisocial colleague? 'Keeps her own counsel' ought to do the trick.

    "Context, of course, is everything. A good letter says something about a candidate's research, teaching, personality, leadership potential, and impact on the field. If you really want to sell somebody, compare the person to other big names in the discipline. If not, keep mum. There's no need to slam someone's scholarship. Just focus the entire recommendation on their teaching. The review committee can do the math for themselves."
    (Alison Schneider, "Why You Can't Trust Letters of Recommendation." The Chronicle of Higher Education, June 30, 2000)

  • Ambiguous Recommendations
    "[E]mployers should be able to write recommendations without fear of lawsuits. They need a way to convey honest--though perhaps unfavorable—information about a candidate for a job without the candidate being able to perceive it as such. To this end, I have designed The Lexicon of Intentionally Ambiguous RecommendationsL.I.A.R., for short. Two samples from the lexicon should illustrate the approach:
    To describe a candidate who is not very industrious: 'In my opinion, you will be very fortunate to get this person to work for you.'

    To describe a candidate who is certain to foul up any project: 'I am sure that whatever task he undertakes—no matter how small—he will be fired with enthusiasm.'
    Phrases like these allow an evaluator to offer a negative opinion of the candidate's personal qualities, work habits, or motivation, yet enable the candidate to believe that he or she has been praised highly."
    (Robert J. Thornton, The Lexicon of Intentionally Ambiguous Recommendations: Positive-Sounding References for People Who Can't Manage Their Own Sock Drawers. Sourcebooks, 2003)