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I am a programmer/engineer who has been asked to write a letter of recommendation for a colleague, who wishes it to help him pursue higher education.

Since I feel it necessary, to be very professional and very impartial in the letter I am about to put together for him. And at the same time I wish to bring out the best qualities which I have seen in him, namely power of analysis and clear thought, openness to novel and even left-field ideas.

I am looking for sources where I can refer to for constructing such a letter - I hit stackoverflow by force of habit, then to english.stackexchange.com and was surprised not to find any results. Some Googling gave me only mundane and glossy samples, which did not sound very authentic to me because of all the power verbs cramped together in an non-cohesive way.

I will edit the question summarizing your answers daily, thank you.

EDIT:

Based on comments, here is an example, to help narrow down the question. (I cannot however put a draft here and ask for feedback, because finding any version of my letter sitting on the internet, will reduce the authenticity of it.) Here is a sample of what I did not like for the above mentioned reasons :

X is a well disciplined, industrious student with a pleasant personality. She is unstinting in her efforts to keep abreast with the latest technologies, indefatigable in showing the applications of theory to practice in any work she does. Besides academics, X as a member of the association for communication engineers in this college takes part enthusiastically in various co-curricular activities of the department. She played a major role in organizing ‘SOME_EVENT’, a national level technical symposium conducted by the Department. In my unbiased opinion she has a rich blend of creativity, temperament and discipline required for a person who desires a career in computer engineering. I strongly recommend her to the graduate program in your esteemed university with full assistantship.

Note all the power verbs/nouns, and the general rosy smell of the text. It is so living in an ideal world, and does little to strike true to a practical CEO of a company, or the financial officer of an institution - he who decides to give financial assistance or not. Also I feel it is way too generic - See i can now replace X with anyone from a set of million students, and letter still holds up, if you call it holding up.

EDIT:

Joshin has given a valuable new perspective on this for me :

  • He has asked me to step into the mind of the target organization (in this case a grad school)
  • That LOR can be used to help resolve tough hire/fire decisions, for the organization
  • The organization may actually be looking for letter writers, with whom they can relate to, like folks who worked for a long time in their domain, or in an influential well known (for them) organization.
  • The last section (sort of reduces the impact of the previous point) The readers may find something of value, from an unexpected direction, even if the letter writer is in an alien domain.

My conclusion, is that I will write him a LOR anyway (banking on the last point), while asking him to get one (or two) more letters from his university professors and head of departments.

EDIT:

Standback put in an awesome answer himself! He has made his point well, the last two deserves reiteration:

  • In his last point, an honest sincere recommendation may very well be interpreted as an unenthusiastic one, or even a snub. This is a risk, which needs to be taken after researching the target audience.

  • Priority on establishing my credentials instead of impartiality is also something I can relate to. Some words with a negative connotation, may end up in the LOR while you are trying to sound impartial, which happened in my case. This is something to be avoided at all costs in LORs as such words unconsciously such words go to the readers mind, no matter the context.

I would however invite more people to give their thoughts on this. I am still looking for sources where I can refer to, and this thread may very well be it, or have links pointing to other critiques, examples and so on.

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migrated from english.stackexchange.com Aug 24 '11 at 19:52

This question came from our site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts.

2  
@Zasz, a better starting point may be to draft such a letter and ask for feedback, specifically addressing areas you feel are not satisfactory. –  Lynn Beighley Aug 24 '11 at 20:04
1  
@Zasz - can you edit this with sources you've seen and what you think are wrong with them, so we have a more narrow scope for the question? The other option is to ask for a critique of your letter here, as focused critiques are on topic at Writers. –  justkt Aug 25 '11 at 1:00
    
@Zasz: I'm confused as to why you're editing repetitions of the answers into the question. Note that the most popular answers rise to the top, so no worry of missing them! If you think some of the answers have points that deserve emphasis, clarification, or expansion, please feel free to edit them right into the answer - or comment on the answer, if it's an addition or a response. Editing the answers into the question, OTOH, seemsmore confusing and less helpful. –  Standback Aug 31 '11 at 21:13
    
My reason is simply this : I have seen that if good answers are given the attention they deserve (I mean more than a quick upvote click), your questions will attract more such answers. While I can edit the answer, it is not the answer Im enhancing, but it is my perspective on the answer - If, for eg, I disagree with an answer, would you rather I edited it to add my disagreement? –  Zasz Sep 1 '11 at 4:49
    
Heya, I'm responding to you over on chat, so as not to derail the question :) –  Standback Sep 1 '11 at 6:50

3 Answers 3

up vote 3 down vote accepted

First, you need to understand the type of organization (in this case the educational institution and program) and what THEY are looking for. In that way you will have a better idea as to what you need to "market." Also an understanding of how they "view" a letter like this. (Unfortunately, some are using software with key word searches and or "hirelings" who are just doing a job.

Often a letter of recommendation is more of a "tie breaker." If the candidate barely makes it through the "qualifications" then a letter can either save or kill the application.

In addition, a letter may carry more "weight" if the author has been a part of that organization OR works for an organization that has connections. Hint: some organizations actually care more about this because it is a test of the candidate and his/her ability to pass the test of problem solving- in other words- if you are not the right person to write the letter and you write this best letter ever it still could be a loser.

You should stress attributes that are skills for the successful candidate AFTER completion.

BTW,decades ago I was involved with an institution "admissions" process. As an example a "dental" applicant who showed interest/proficiency in a mechanical area (rebuilding car motors- model building- art would have consideration over a candidate with just a good grade in say biology. Why? Because the first candidate showed a "fine motor skills" which let's face it is something that would serve a dentist working in your mouth well.

So you need to consider whether you are the right person to even write the letter. You might even decide to tell your friend to consider a better person.

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There is no correct answer for this question, but I mark it right to respect the fact that you took effort to give me and the community an insightful answer. –  Zasz Aug 28 '11 at 12:07
    
The only part of this answer that irks me is the frequent use of quotation marks. I'd like to put one of these words in quotations to be sarcastic, but that'd be "rude." There we go. –  Sold Out Activist Aug 30 '11 at 16:52
    
So how would you suggest one add ITALICS since some folks can't see them with their font choices? I'm all "eyes". –  Joshin Sep 7 '11 at 20:19
    
LMAO. I'm sorry I just had to say it. –  Aerovistae Mar 28 '12 at 5:21

Make sure you have a job specification on hand and relate relevant experience for the new job. General platitudes are best avoided. Re-read the letter thinking "What justification do I have to rejecting this candidate based on this letter?". If you cannot come with anything, you probably did a good job.

As a side note, if this is a professional reference, do consult with your local HR as a "bad" reference could well end up with you being sued.

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I don't have much hands-on experience with recommendations. Here's my thoughts from a writing perspective.

The role of a great recommendation is to explain what makes a particular person stand out. That means you need to be able to describe, at least to yourself, what makes this one person special. One way to do that is to heap on superlatives, just generally explaining that the person is extremely extremely awesome. This approach is giving you trouble - it's exaggerated and plagued both by buzzwords and "recommendation inflation." The other way is to write well enough that you manage to convey the person's uniqueness and special qualities.

  • Specific is better than vague. Refer to particular characteristics and incidents rather than "general awesomeness"; give specific examples and make clear why they were impressive.
  • Sounding personal, to my mind, adds a ton to a recommendation, because (to my mind) a sincere recommendation is better than a generically glowing one. Of course, you have to balance this with sounding professional. But yes, you can do both.
  • On the other hand, "impartial" may be overrated - you're recommending the guy; you'd better be on his side, or why are you signing your name? :P What you mean by this is that you want your recommendation to sound sound and well-judged rather than somebody cheer-leading a pal just because the pal needed a favor. So what you're going for isn't impartiality, it's establishing your own credentials. You do that by backing up your recommendation with good reasoning and demonstrations (showing that your opinion is well-considered and well-supported), and by referring to substantial achievements (both yours and the recomendee's) which show that you're experienced.
  • The biggest concern is your target audience. The trouble is, if everybody's recommended as "brilliant" and "enthusiastic," then a more realistic recommendation is likely to fall short, and seem like a snub, or at least an unenthusiastic recommendation. So you need to get a sense of both what the target reviewer is looking for/willing to accept, and of your own eloquence of portrayal - whether or not your honest, sincere recommendation is effective enough to be clearly positive and enticing to somebody who doesn't know you or your colleague.

I repeat the proviso: I've got no experience with writing or receiving recommendation letters. I don't know what's actually effective or expected. I just know what I myself would want to write, and to have written about me.

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Very insightful article! Let me take a look at any other answers that come up so, I can award the bounty after comparing notes. –  Zasz Aug 29 '11 at 7:10

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