Writing Better Recommendation Letters

by Kelle on November 9, 2010

Two great links on writing recommendation letters.

First, a post with some very general advice. A great place to start if you’re new to writing letters and/or you haven’t seen very many as a committee member:
Writing Badass Letters of Recommendation | 3 x 3 in Cullowhee. (via Profahacker.)

Second, an article describing the differences between letters written for people of different genders. Be careful to avoid negatively impacting female applicants by over-emphasizing their stereotypically female attributes (communal traits); instead, use active or assertive (agentic) descriptors.
Recommendation letters could cost women jobs, promotions | PhysOrg
(via Chris Burke.)

Words in the communal category included adjectives such as affectionate, helpful, kind, sympathetic, nurturing, tactful and agreeable, and behaviors such as helping others, taking direction well and maintaining relationships. Agentic (active or assertive) adjectives included words such as confident, aggressive, ambitious, dominant, forceful, independent, daring, outspoken and intellectual, and behaviors such as speaking assertively, influencing others and initiating tasks.

The research team also noted that letter writers included more doubt raisers when recommending women, using phrases such as “She might make an excellent leader” versus what they used for male candidates, “He is already an established leader.”

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Nate Kreuter November 9, 2010 at 11:07 pm


Thanks for posting my link on “Writing Badass Letters of Recommendation.” If your readers have any specific feedback or concerns on writing letters, I would be happy to address them.

Nate Kreuter
Western Carolina University


2 Jane Rigby November 24, 2010 at 8:24 am

The last few dozen rec letters I read, I noticed the words used to describe personality. I was surprised how many letters reassured the reader that male applicants had “pleasant” personalities that were well-suited to group work. In an admittedly small, nonscientific sample, I didn’t see male applicants described as more assertive.

Perhaps this is because these are applications for postdoc positions, where teamwork is obviously important, rather than applications for junior faculty positions, where one is supposed to be a cheese that stands alone.


3 Kelle December 12, 2010 at 9:12 pm

Here’s a nice collection of phrases…extremely useful for inspiration: http://alumnus.caltech.edu/~natalia/studyinus/guide/recom/phrases.htm


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