(Also see my advice on requesting recommendation letters, and Shriram Krishnamurthis advice to graduate school recommendation letter writers.)
At the beginning of the letter, say how well you know the person, for how long, and how you became acquainted. Also give an overview or summary of your recommendation.
Differentiate. Say how this person is unlike other people: his or her specific strengths.
Justify your recommendations. Dont write a statement like "The applicant is definitely qualified for your institution/award/program" (with "your institution" verbatim as in a form letter, not substituted by an actual name). This weakens rather than strengthens the letter, because the reader will assume that the form letter was sent to many places, and the statement cannot be true of every recipient.
Dont be too brief. One paragraph, or two short paragraphs, is the kiss of death. (If you dont know the student well, and dont have much to say, add a short paragraph explaining what the course is and why its good that the student excelled in it. This wont fool most people, but will soften the blow of a short letter.) However, dont ramble: make it succinct and to the point. Whoever reads your letter is probably reading hundreds of other letters. If the key points of yours do not pop out, or the reader wearies midway through your letter, then your letter will net be effective.
For situations where the letter has a disproportionate impact (e.g., for faculty applications), or if you are new to recommendation-writing, treat your letter like any other important piece of writing: get feedback from others.
Write letters of recommendation to provide relevant information and to present an individual truthfully and positively.
Here is a real example of a letter of recommendation that I received for a PhD applicant. An eminent faculty member sent this in response to my request for more information, because the first letter had been content-free. You can see that this letter, though positive on its face, violates nearly every rule about writing a recommendation letter. It saddens me that lack of thoughtfulness on the part of the advisor meant that we had to reject the students application (though its possible that the advisor truly thought the student was unworthy and was signaling this obliquely via the letter).
Dear Prof. Ernst: It is my pleasure to write this letter and recommend [omitted], one of my favorite students, for the admission to the Co-PhD Study Program at your laboratory. [omitted] is an enthusiastic and progressive young man with extremely high potentialities. He is not only quick at learning and good at solving complicated problems, but also with a logical and creative mind that enables him to raise some insightful views. I was also deeply impressed with his diligence and outstanding communication ability, compared with my other students. Whats more, he is an optimistic man with pleasant personality, and gets along well with all the people around him. I hope he could further broaden his vision and accumulate research and programming experience to get him more fruitful. I believe in your laboratory, which possesses a wonderful research foundation for program analysis and software security, his excellent competence, coupled with your preeminent guidance, will assure him of academic achievements in his future academic pursuits. Thanks for your letter, if you have any other questions, please contact me freely. [Signature] Back to Advice compiled by Michael Ernst.
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