When students apply to undergraduate or graduate programs in America, the application process usually includes at least two recommendations from teachers or professors who can honestly evaluate the student's academic ability and potential as a scholar. These letters count a lot in making the decision on whether or not to accept the student so it is important that you provide the admissions committee with the kind of information that is most helpful. Your American colleagues are relying on your judgment and expertise to help them make the right decision.
Only agree to write a recommendation if you can write a positive one. It is best to be honest with the student and tell him or her to ask someone else if what you have to say is going to hurt chances of acceptance.
Find out what the student's specific goals are before you begin writing the recommendation. You want to emphasize the aspects of her/his personality and academic performance that relate to that goal.
The letter should include:
Your status - position at the university or job title. How long have you known the student and in what capacity (as a teacher, an adviser, a research supervisor, etc.)
The better you know the student, the more effective your recommendation will be. They want specifics, NOT generalizations. It is good to say that someone is hardworking and organized, but you need to back up these statements with concrete examples. "Julia is a hardworking student. Her research project on unemployment in Akademgorodok was thorough and was an impressive demonstration of her ability to work with and analyze statistics." Talk about what the student has done and is capable of doing. What is it exactly about the student that makes her or him special? Why do you think this student would benefit from studying in the US?
Evaluate the student by comparing him or her with other students you have observed in your work. The following is a suggestion of categories you may wish to use for comparison. You can use phrases such as excellent, very good, average, or below average.
• Intellectual Ability
• Work Habits
• Teaching Potential
• Seriousness of Purpose
• Knowledge of Field
• Emotional Maturity
• Resourcefulness and Initiative
• Adaptability to New Situations
• Motivation to Pursue Graduate Study
• Potential for Significant Future Contribution in Field
Quantify your impressions. Is the student in the top 5% of his or her classmates, top 10%, 25%, 50%?
One page is sufficient. Quality, not quantity, is what is important. Make every sentence count. Do not put something in if an immediate connection cannot be made between that information and the student's ability to participate in the program.
Technically, students are not supposed to see the recommendations. Obviously it is difficult for Russians to follow this rule because the student must ensure that everything is mailed. Most schools ask that the recommender put the letter in an envelope, seal it shut, and sign over the closed envelope flap.