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Advice to Faculty on Reference and Recommendation Letters

One of the happier chores that falls to faculty members is that of writing letters of reference and recommendation. Even so, if you've never done this before, it could be a daunting experience. Even if you've written a million of them, you may wonder what obligations and constraints are placed upon you by FERPA, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. (It turns out that that the FERPA constraints are different depending upon whether you're writing a recommendation for a school, or for another purpose, such as a scholarship, award, employment reference, or security clearance.)

My advice is below. You can find another take on the subject here:

General Guidelines

Negative recommendations: If you cannot give a positive recommendation, you have an ethical obligation to decline to write a recommendation and to tell the student, at least in general terms, why not. Of course, some recommendations will be more positive than others, but you should never write a recommendation on which you would check the "cannot recommend" block, and you should consider carefully before agreeing to a recommendation where you would check "recommend with reservations."

Unfamiliarity with the student: If you are uncomfortable writing a recommendation because you aren't sufficiently familiar with the student, discuss it with the student and offer a graceful way for the student to decide to solicit the recommendation from another faculty member.

Additional information: Ask the student for a copy of a current resume and for a written statement (email is fine) explaining why this student is particularly suited for the position or academic program for which you will be writing the recommendation. If the student is applying for an academic program, ask for a copy of the student's statement of purpose or admission essay. Read these and take them into consideration as you frame your remarks.

Characteristics of the Letter

This section is based upon the article: Larkin, G.L. "Ethics seminars: beyond authorship requirements; ethical considerations in writing letters of recommendation." Acad Emerg Med. 2001;8(1):703, which includes "The Seven Cardinal Virtues of an Exemplary Letter of Recommendation" and upon the Medical Teacher's Handbook of the School of Medicine, Medical College of Georgia, which describes the Seven Virtues in its explanation of how to write a letter of recommendation.

Authentic: Schools will have, and employers can get (by requesting the student to send) a transcript with grades. Your mission as a referee is to answer those questions that are not answered by the transcript and that you are particularly well qualified to address. So, the first paragraph of your letter is about you: it describes your relationship with the student and authenticates the material that follows. Confine your remarks to those areas of a student's education that you know personally. Don't write "boilerplate" letters.

Honest: You want to give the best students their best chance at the things for which they strive. One way to do so is to avoid hyperbole inflation. A letter that says the student is tops at everything may be less credible than one admits of some weaknesses. At the same time, avoid damning with faint praise. "Showed great improvement..." says that improvement was desired and implies that even more improvement may be needed.

Explicit: Don't just tell people the candidate's strengths; give examples. Instead of saying, "works well with others," say, "emerged as the leader of a team project in IT 4683 and induced her team to produce an exemplary product." (But see the FERPA section below before you quote course numbers.)

Balanced: "Balanced" means more than talking about weaknesses as well as strengths; it means covering all the bases. Consider the characteristics that are likely to be important in this particular reference and address each one. Examples include work ethic, interpersonal relationships, leadership potential, potential for teaching and research, communication skills, teamwork, and so on. Often you can get a clue from the reference form itself. Try to address each item you believe to be important.

Confidential: Whether the letter itself is confidential depends upon whether the student has waived right of access. Here, we are talking about those things the student has a right to be kept confidential. Those include sex, age, race, color or ethnicity, religion, and national origin. While it would be absurd to avoid the pronoun "she" when writing for Jane Doe, you would not write, "the only woman in a class with 47 men..." thus calling attention to her sex. Here are some other things to avoid:

You get the idea, OK?

Appropriate detail and length: The people who read these letters read a lot of letters. Many authorities suggest one page as the maximum length. An SPSU faculty member who has a good record for getting scholarship awards and admission to graduate programs for his students suggests two pages as the maximum. More than that is likely to be harmful. Within the length constraint, try to cover the important points in detail rather than many points in a sentence-fragment each.

Technically clear: As an institution focused on engineering and technology, we have ample opportunity to use abbreviations, terms of art, and jargon. Please resist the temptation, or at least consider the intended recipient of the letter. Even then, consider that your letter may be screened by someone from another field. Spell out rather than using abbreviations and avoid jargon and terms of art as far as possible.

FERPA for College, Graduate School, and Professional School References

There is a specific exemption in FERPA for information provided to another school to which the student has applied, so you can disclose information that would otherwise be prohibited, including courses taken and grades earned. No release is necessary for this disclosure.

You should have a written request from the student. Often that will be a recommendation form that is a part of the school's application packet, and that is sufficient.

You should also have an indication of whether the student has or has not waived his right of access to your recommendation. Such a waiver is usually built in to the recommendation form and again, that is sufficient. However, if you are given a form without a waiver section, or if you are asked to write a free-form letter, You should have the student specifically waive or decline to waive his right of access. Probably the easiest way to do that is with the FERPA Release.

Your recommendation becomes an "education record" under FERPA, and is subject to inspection by the student unless the student has waived right of access. So, you should maintain an orderly file of the recommendations you write.

You cannot require a student to waive his right to see recommendations, but you are not obligated to write a recommendation for any student, and you may consider whether the student has waived his right to see recommendations in making your decision. The information I publish for students about recommendations says, "I reserve the right to decline to complete reference forms where you have not waived your right to access, even if I have previously told you I'd be a reference." And I do decline, even for the very best students.

If you write letter separate from the recommendation form, send it with the form and note, "See attached" on the form. If you use my FERPA release, include a copy with the material you send.

FERPA for Employment, Scholarships and Awards, and Other References

You can write a reference or recommendation letter based upon your personal observation and knowledge without a FERPA release. As soon as you address grades or specific courses, you need a release, and it may be wise to get a release in every case. Use the FERPA Release. Although the release is very general, you should still confine your remarks to those areas of a student's education that you know personally.

Your letter should either open or close with a paragraph emphasizing that the material it contains is confidential. The sample below assumes the student has waived the right of access to your recommendation. Omit the first clause of the second sentence if the student has not waived right of access.

The information contained in this letter is confidential and protected by Federal law. This information should not be disclosed to [name of student, if student has waived access] or anyone in your organization who is not involved in the decision process regarding this individual. The information may not be disclosed to anyone outside of your organization without the consent of [name of student].

Include a copy of the FERPA release with your letter.

Your recommendation becomes an "education record" under FERPA, and is subject to inspection by the student unless the student has waived right of access. So, you should maintain an orderly file of the recommendations you write.

A Closing Hint

Reference material is increasingly collected online. Compose your letter of recommendation using a word processor and save a copy. Paste what you have written into the online form. That way, you will be able to retrieve the exact words you used if ever there's a reason to do so. For forms with radio buttons, checkboxes, etc., print a copy to PDF before you submit the form

Last updated: 2018-01-06 11:53  
Originally published: