Writing Reference Letters
It is common for graduate student course instructors and teaching assistants to be asked to write reference letters for students. Enthusiastically supportive documents are typically a valuable part of any application package. This tip sheet will provide some important information to help you get started when you receive such requests. Keep in mind, at times the applicant will never see this letter; this offers great power but also great responsibility.
Requesting Supporting Materials
To ensure the letter writing process both reflects your student’s needs and respects your time, we advise asking for any supporting materials as soon as you accept a request. The items needed may vary based on the application context but could include some or all the elements listed below.
You might request these materials over email or in a meeting with the student:
- Information about the opportunity, such as a description or link to the organization, any posted assessment criteria, and whether the student requires a letter of recommendation (generally only positive) or a letter of reference (an evaluation relative to their peers)
- Information about the student’s goals, why they are applying, and how the position or award advances their scholarly or professional ambitions
- A current CV or resume, emphasizing the skills and experiences relevant for the opportunity
- A list of professional highlights, noting any achievements the student would like you to explicitly underscore in your letter
- A draft research or personal statement, or any other document that is central to the assessment
- A transcript, particularly if the position or award is based on academic achievement
- A sample of their work, ideally from your class and with your feedback, which may aid with recall and provide examples for your appraisal
- A general sense of the other referees, allowing you to identify a unique way to frame your letter
- Any reference forms (if applicable), with fields about the student pre-filled
- Instructions on how to design and send the letter, including any structured questions from the organization, formatting requirements (e.g., plain text, a fillable form, or letterhead; word limits; file types), and submission details (e.g., email, web, or mailing addresses; recipient names)
- The submission deadline
Note: Some students may have a gap or pattern in their transcript, CV, or resume that they would like to explain in their application. Your letter may provide a venue to speak to these extenuating circumstances; however, only comment at the student’s request and with their written consent.
Managing Questionable Requests
Sometimes, you may feel like you cannot provide a very strong reference letter. For example:
- The student performed poorly in your class.
- You have insufficient experience working with the student.
- You believe other candidates are better suited for the opportunity.
- The student has provided you with limited information.
- You do not meet the appraiser qualifications.
- You do not have time to honour the request by the student’s deadline.
In these circumstances, we recommend having a kind and honest conversation with the student as soon as possible. This maintains transparency, trust, and consent, and can serve as a valuable teaching moment.
- If a letter is feasible but not ideal: Make the student aware of the limitations of a reference you would write, so they can make an informed and timely decision about how to proceed.
- In some cases, especially non-competitive positions like some volunteer roles, a reference does not need to be exceptional, nor are past grades the best indicator of future success.
- Let the student know what you can and cannot say and give them the option to stay the course or seek out another referee.
- If a letter is not feasible: Respectfully decline as soon as possible and encourage the student to ask someone else.
- Exercise candor and kindness in your response.
- Sharing the reasoning for your “no” to the extent you are comfortable, or identifying the attributes of a more suitable writer, can help your student understand how to select a more appropriate referee in the future.
- Declining quickly will also improve their chances of securing another referee before their current deadline.
Writing the Letter
There are typically three main sections of a reference letter: the introduction, body, and conclusion. In this part of the tip sheet, we discuss what should be written in each section. However, it is important to note that, at times, you may want to alter this format (e.g., you need to write a longer letter with multiple body paragraphs), and that is totally okay!
Section 1: Introduction
In the first paragraph of the letter, you typically want to describe how you know the student, why you are qualified to evaluate them, and your overall impression of the candidate’s suitability for the position or award.
Some writing prompts you can use are:
- How do you know the candidate? (e.g., I was their teaching assistant in course XYZ; They were a volunteer in my lab, etc.)
- How long have you known the candidate? (e.g., how many courses, months, or years?)
- How well do you know the candidate? (e.g., They often come to my office hours; We meet once per month to discuss professional development, etc.)
- How does the candidate compare to others with whom you have experience? (e.g., They were in the top 5% of the class; They are one of the strongest students I have taught over the last five years, etc.)
- What are the main reasons the candidate is suitable for the position or award? These could be qualities and experiences you elaborate on in the body of the letter. (e.g., I am happy to endorse this candidate for this position because they are X, Y, and Z.)
Section 2: Body
The aim of the second section of the letter is to convince the reader that the candidate is well suited for the position or award. You may write more than one paragraph in this section to help convey your points. This section should be tailored to the candidate; we suggest using some of the supporting materials you have gathered to guide this section of your writing. Using clear, objective examples often helps strengthen this section of the letter.
Some writing prompts you can use are:
- What qualities does the candidate possess that would help them succeed in the position? (e.g., leadership, initiative, problem solving, communication, interpersonal behaviours, motivation, etc.)
- What are some specific examples when the student previously excelled or demonstrated these qualities in your past interactions? (e.g., They exhibited leadership qualities in a group project by…; They engaged in effective problem solving in challenging tutorials by…; Their strong writing skills have been evident in…, etc.)
- What are some of candidate’s accomplishments that are relevant to this position? (e.g., previous awards, publications, etc.)
Section 3: Conclusion
In the section of the letter, you may want to restate your support of the candidate for the position or award, summarize why they are qualified, and state how the hiring/awards committee can contact if you if they have further questions. This typically is the shortest section of the letter.
Some writing prompts you can use are:
- Why do you recommend the candidate?
- Why would the student be successful in the position?
- How can the adjudication committee contact you if they have further questions or concerns?
Common Mistakes to Avoid When Writing Reference Letters
There are a few common pitfalls to avoid when writing a reference letter. These include:
- Saying “yes” if you can’t write a good letter.
- If you don’t have enough time (or if the request is made too close to the deadline), it is okay to say that you cannot write a letter. This obligation may change if you take a faculty position, but as a teaching assistant or graduate course instructor, you are also a student with a limited amount of time. Consider offering a short meeting to help the student identify other faculty or individuals to ask.
- If you don’t feel comfortable writing a reference, it does a candidate no good to receive a letter from someone who doesn’t know or doesn’t support that applicant. Use the tips in the “Managing Questionable Requests” section to help guide your next steps.
- If you don’t think the opportunity is a good match, have an honest conversation with the applicant about why you don’t think they are well suited for the opportunity. Consider discussing with the applicant other opportunities for which they may be better suited.
- Not having enough information to write an effective letter.
- Ask the applicant for information about themselves and the position or award to which they are applying. The “Requesting Supporting Materials” section above can provide you with ideas for specific documents to request.
- Some professors and teaching assistants like the student to write a first draft of the reference letter. It is up to you if this is an approach you would like to take; however, we highly suggest modifying these drafts to suit your needs.
- Being vague.
- An application can be “damned by faint praise,” so use concrete examples of the applicant’s performance, and personalize your letter to describe the positive interactions you have personally had with the applicant.
- Describe situations when the candidate has exceeded, rather than met basic, expectations. Avoid discussing their punctuality or ability to keep up with material, for example, as these are traits that may be expected of all students.
- Minimize any distancing language (e.g., “as far as I know”) that may reduce your credibility or suitability to provide a letter.
- Being critical or “constructive.”
- The goal in a reference letter is to support the applicant as much as possible. This is not the context to highlight all the areas the applicant can still grow or improve in – unless this is explicitly requested.
- Any ambiguous or negative content is typically considered a “red flag” and may limit the chances of success for the applicant.
- If you feel that you cannot write a fully supportive letter, or that it is important to highlight an area of improvement for the candidate, you should let the applicant know that you plan to do so. This provides the candidate an opportunity to decide if they would still like you to write the letter.
Addressing Biases in Reference Writing
Everyone has biases. Emerging research indicates that an applicant’s gender, race, and other identifying features may influence how a referee writes about them in reference letters. It is important to check for your own biases and ensure your letter does not reproduce such inequities.
Research shows that descriptive words may be used differently in evaluating members of different social groups:
- Women are often described using “grindstone” adjectives (e.g., hardworking, conscientious, dependable, careful). Such adjectives tend to suggest that the applicant’s success is due to their effort rather than their ability.
- Standout adjectives (e.g., excellent, superb, unique) are often used more for men than women, while women will receive faint praise (e.g., competent, adequate).
- Communal adjectives (e.g., compassionate, warm, caring, helpful) or agentic adjectives (e.g., ambitious, dominant, self-confident) can be negatively associated with hire ability.
Best practices for avoiding biases:
- Ask the applicant how they wish to be addressed in the letter (title, first name, etc.).
- Emphasize accomplishment. Mention publications and research over descriptions of effort.
- Use standout adjectives for all applicants regardless of identity. Examples of these adjectives include:
- Write the same length of letter for every candidate, regardless of identity.
- Avoid stereotypes that are associated with a certain identity group.
- Reconsider or avoid the use of gendered, grindstone, communal and agentic adjectives (examples listed above), or any qualified praise (e.g., usually good, tend-to-be, in general, etc.).
- Minimize commenting on information like personal hobbies unless these have been specifically requested by the applicant or adjudication committee.
Final Thoughts about Reference Letters
This tip sheet was created to help you navigate the process of writing reference letters for students.
Some important points to take away from reading this tip sheet include:
- How to decide if you are the right person to write a reference letter for a student.
- The importance of asking for supporting materials from the student to make your writing easier.
- The most common format of a reference letter including an introduction, body, and conclusion.
- How to edit your reference letter to minimize common mistakes and any biases in your writing.
We hope this tip sheet is helpful for you in your process of supporting your students in their future applications. Good luck and happy writing!
Created by TATP Graduate Educational Developers Sarah Gregor, Michael Chrobok, and David DeGrow © 2022