Best Practices for Letter Writers

Reference letters are a key component of the application materials needed by U-M students and alumni seeking admission to continuing education opportunities and future employment. To achieve their goals, students rely on the support of faculty and staff who can speak to the strength of their candidacy for future opportunities via quality reference letters. Being in the position to evaluate students’ strengths and areas for growth enables faculty and staff to be key contributors in facilitating students’ success.

Below are some suggestions for best practices in reference letter writing. It is important to remember that the student’s merit should be the primary guide for determining how and whether to provide a reference letter. The University Career Center is a campus resource for additional questions related to providing letters of reference.

Writing a Letter | Before

  • If possible, arrange a meeting with the student to discuss their specific academic and career goals.
  • Communicate honestly and directly whether or not you are able to write a positive letter on behalf of the student. If limited knowledge of the student’s talents or a negative impression would prevent you from providing a positive letter, discuss those issues with the student at the onset.  This clarification may encourage the student to pursue other sources or initiate a conversation to address your concerns.
  • Clarify timelines, modalities and requirements for letter submission. For example, some schools/organizations may only accept references prepared on letterhead, require the author’s signature even if submitting online, or insist on using a certain application service or dossier management system. Failing to write a letter by an agreed upon timeline may gravely impact a student’s ability to have a completed application by an established deadline. Thus, failure to submit a required letter may preclude a student from meeting the minimum number of letters necessary for consideration of their application.
  • Discuss whether your letter will be confidential or non-confidential. To comply with FERPA, you will need to obtain the student’s written permission before serving as a reference unless you are responding to an online request generated by the student themselves. When providing a verbal reference, having the student’s written permission may be especially critical.
  • Once you agree to provide a reference, it is critical to maintain the integrity of the process by personally writing the letter rather than simply signing a letter that you asked the student to compose. Requesting ideas from the student with regard to areas of focus is, however, acceptable and often helpful.
  • Ask the student for a resume, personal statement, transcript, even a picture (as a visual aid to jog your memory if needed) or whatever additional materials may assist you in crafting your letter.
  • Consider the advantages of co-signing a letter. Faculty and graduate student instructors are often inundated with requests for reference letters. In turn, students may debate whether to pursue the “status” of a faculty letter in lieu of more personalized comments by a GSI. Co-signed letters serve the student’s needs while providing a creative solution to pressing workloads. Regardless, it is ill-advised to ask a student to compose their letter submitted under your signature.

Writing a Letter | During

  • Limit reference letters to 1-2 pages in length.
  • Frame your comments within the context of the student’s purpose for the letter—for example, graduate school admission vs. employment.
    • Graduate school admissions committees indicate that they are particularly interested in learning the context in which you are evaluating the students (e.g., level of course difficulty, grading criteria, ranking among all students in a class or even in your academic career). Your assessment of the student’s attributes--such as scholarship, future intellectual promise, consistency of performance, communication, social skills and work behaviors--are deemed very valuable.
    • Medical schools’ admissions committees find it particularly useful when writers comment on the student’s motivation for a career in medicine, service to the community, research activities, decision making skills, perseverance, empathy, and cultural competence.  The American Association of Medical Colleges (AAMC) has developed a set of guidelines on how to write effective reference letters in support of medical school application.
    • Law schools’ admissions committees favor letters that comment on communication, expository, negotiating and persuasion skills; research and analytical abilities; ability to work independently and complete projects on time; resourcefulness, attention to detail; and leadership abilities inside and outside the classroom.
    • Employers are interested in some of these same qualities but are also likely to expect information on specific abilities relevant to the position being sought. You may want to highlight areas such as writing ability, analytical skills, creativity, customer service, task orientation, teamwork, accountability and supervision depending on the role. Refer to the career readiness competencies identified by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) for more information.
  • Aim to provide an accurate assessment of the student’s abilities and fit for their chosen field rather than simply advocating for the student in general terms.
  • Indicate the capacity or setting in which you know the student (e.g., classroom, lab, co-curricular, work) as well as the length of time and the quality of the interaction.
  • Focus mainly on the student’s abilities and accomplishments rather than details about your lab, course structure, position or institution.
  • Highlight behaviors that you have observed directly when describing the student’s suitability for their chosen field. Describe situations and provide context for the behaviors; what you observed; and any consequences/impact of the behaviors.
  • Concentrate on insights and perspectives about the student’s past performance and the promise to succeed in their chosen profession beyond what can be extrapolated from numerical credentials. Provide information on grades, GPA or standardized test scores only if you also provide context to help interpret them. Keep in mind, that information will be available on the student’s application. 
  • If making comparisons, provide some context, such as the comparison group (other students in the class, students in the department over the years, etc.) but especially your rationale for the comparison.
  • Refrain from commenting on general moral character so as not to risk any claims of defamation.
  • Offer balanced perspectives. Admissions/search committees appreciate letters that offer honest assessments by discussing strengths as well as some areas for growth. Committees are looking for qualified individuals with potential—not flawless applicants.

Writing a Letter | Addressing Legal and Ethical Considerations

  • Writing helpful, legally permissible reference letters involves striking a delicate balance. You are encouraged to provide as much information about students as possible, but within the context of legal parameters. It is best to refrain from referring to the student’s protected classification information (e.g. race, national origin, religion, gender, physical disability, marital status and age). This is in an effort to eliminate biased practices. If you feel the need to do so, obtain the student’s written permission before making such references.
  • If you intend to include sensitive information, confirm with the student that they are comfortable with the inclusion of that information and secure their permission in writing. Similarly, if you are aware of extenuating circumstances that impacted the student’s academic progress, obtain their written permission to disclose that information.
  • If you have been directly involved in a problematic situation with a student (such as infractions or questionable behavior), you may choose to address this in your letter so your audience has a better understanding of the circumstances and, in turn, may evaluate the student’s maturity, judgment and ability to grow.

Writing a Letter | After

Problems can arise when reference letters:

  • Are addressed to one specific institution but have the potential of being used more broadly for many applications or are otherwise inappropriate for multiple audiences.
  • Contain irregularities with the student’s name such as incorrect spelling; or use of a nickname without first introducing the student’s legal name; or, worse, inclusion of a different individual’s name in the body of the letter--a clear indication of a failed cut and paste effort from another letter.
  • Lack clarity regarding the nature of the relationship between you and the student (e.g., personal, academic, or professional employment).
  • Are prepared on plain, white paper instead of letterhead and/or are missing your signature and/or contact information when required by the receiving school or organization.
  • Focus primarily on the writer or the class taught, with only a brief reference to the student.
  • Contain unsupported, over-enthusiastic or generic endorsements, instead of balanced and relevant insights.
  • Consist of only one sentence or one paragraph simply confirming the completion of a class and the grade earned by the student.
  • Disclose the student’s personal circumstances, especially in relation to illnesses or disability, without prior authorization or appropriate relevance.


University Career Center
Email: [email protected]
Phone: (734) 764-7460