How to Write a Reference Letter for a Student

I recently wrote a post on the ‘student advice’ side of this blog about how to ask for a reference letter (aka letter of recommendation). That post got me thinking about how I write reference letters for students. So, I decided to share below my thoughts on the matter.

I find this a fulfilling part of the job because I feel like I’m helping students out. Being quite young, it wasn’t that long ago that I was just out of university and struggling to find employment. I wished I had someone to write me a stellar recommendation that’d propel me above the rest.

So, I feel like writing letters on behalf of students to potential employers is part of doing what I came to do. It fulfills that intrinsic desire to be helpful to people in need which I think sits at the heart of the vocation.

In this post, I’ll share my thoughts on nine  points:

  1. Is it my Job?
  2. Should I give a Bad Student a Letter of Recommendation?
  3. How Personalized should my Letter Be?
  4. I don’t Know the Student Well. What Should I Write?
  5. Should I write about the student’s GPA or Transcript?
  6. Should I write a Job-Specific or Generalized Letter?
  7. Should I share what I’ve Written with the Student?
  8. What if the Employer Asks Questions I cannot Answer?

Let’s get started with the one that generates the most controversy!

1. Is it my Job?

No. But also, Yes.

In my opinion you should write a letter of recommendation for any student who you would be proud to recommend.

Why? Because it’s your vocation.

My vocation as a teacher is to support young people as they strive for self-improvement (Sorry to sound Cliché).

It’s also part of the fulfillment of something I worked hard for: I nurtured this young person, scaffolded them through tough content and guided them to the place they are today. I nurtured their interest in the topic and pointed them in the right direction.

Am I really going to hold back one last piece of support when they’re so close to their goal? No, I don’t think I will.

It’s my opinion (and only my opinion!) that teachers should write letters of recommendation. It represents the culmination of both our and out students’ shared hard work. It’s not on our job description, but not everything in our line of work is an economic transaction.

Sure, you’re not allocated time to do it in your workload. But don’t draw the line here! Draw the line at the bureaucracy, the after-school meetings about absolute bulls**t. Draw the line at your bosses making you do extra work on their nonsense vanity projects.

Plus, personally, it’s one of the pleasures of the job. It’s one tangible act that really does give them a push in the right direction and help them out into the world. It’s satisfying!

2. Should I give a Bad Student a Letter of Recommendation?

I’ve had this conundrum a few times, so here’s where I stand on the matter.

I’ve refused one letter of recommendation. Once.

I’ve written letters of recommendation for pretty average students before.

For the average students, I am careful to talk about what I still genuinely see as their good traits. They are soft skills elements, like their interest in specific content in the degree or the fact that they’ve shown sustained commitment to this career by getting through the degree.

But for those average students I’ve also shied away from saying anything about their critical thinking skills or about how they’re a stellar, stand-out student. I save the lavish praise for the students who deserve it.

I think for my average students, they’ve read my letters of recommendation and still appreciated them. They’ve seen that I’ve been generous and positive without lying.

And I do hope the employers also looked at the letters and thought that the person I’m writing about must be lovely, but not a standout candidate. They may give them a go, they may not.

But I’ve always only written a letter that I feel comfortable showing to the student and the employer and saying:

“Yes, this is a generous but also true and constructive statement about the candidate.”

What about the Student who I refused to Provide a Letter For?

This student really was a lovely girl, but I felt like I couldn’t recommend her.

Every other student – even the average ones – I probably would have given a chance as my employee. I’d have accepted that scholarship and practice are different in many ways, and that they would have been able to find their way and possibly excel.

But this student?

Well, she was very friendly. But she was lazy. And I didn’t feel I could recommend her.

I would not want someone to recommend her to my workplace.

So, I had to politely decline. I didn’t write a negative recommendation or slyly email the employer that she was no good.

I simply said “I’m sorry, but I am not willing to give a recommendation.”

It was a little bit awkward, I must admit. And I felt sorry for her because I don’t like refusing to help someone.

But I couldn’t recommend her in good faith. And that was that.

3. How Personalized should my Letter Be?

I make sure my letters are very personalized. I aim to say something unique about the student. I’ll talk about what personal interest or angles they take on my subjects and complement students on their individual strengths.

I try to tell an anecdote about a specific instance or situation in which the student shined. I might reflect back on some of our one-to-one meetings and reflect on positive attributes of the student like:

  • Eagerness to learn;
  • Commitment to their studies;
  • Patience and determination to succeed;
  • Ability to take and act on constructive critique.

If a student really stood out for their contributions to class or for the quality of their submissions, I’ll highlight that, too.

4. I don’t Know the Student Well. What Should I Write?

If I don’t know a student too well, I still usually try to write a reference letter for them whenever possible.

However, I do a few things first to gather the information I need:

  1. I dig up the feedback I gave the student; and
  2. I ask colleagues about their impression of the student

I’ll take these two points one at a time.

Firstly, I use feedback (and take another look over students’ assessment items) to see if I can find valuable commentary for the prospective employer.

For example, many of my dissertation students will ask for a reference. With them, I talk about their choice of topic and emphasize that this topic choice represents the student’s specific interest in specializing in one area of the topic.

I will also look at my feedback and consider what I complemented them on: did I make a comment about how they may have acted on my advice to write something? Did I complement the student on their attention to detail or depth of background research?

Usually, I find a few points that can form the basis for good points to include in a reference.

Secondly, I talk with colleagues and see whether they have insights into the student. We teachers love a good gossip, so I can get some good background information from my colleagues about where the student’s strengths and weaknesses lie.

5. Should I write about the student’s GPA or Transcript?

Generally, No.

Many of my colleagues will send a request through to admin to get access to the student’s transcript. They will then write a pretty run-of-the-mill form letter stating that they were the student’s teacher, and that the student generally got a certain grade.

While this may be useful information, the prospective employer can glean that information from a transcript for themselves.

I think an employer is more interested in a personal reflection on the student’s capacities. Personal comments act as social proof that the prospective employers will appreciate much more.

Furthermore, a personal comment about the student is more well received by the students. It shows that you have paid attention and have an interest in their success.

6. Should I write Job-Specific Letter or a Generalized or Letter for Multiple Employers?

It depends.

If the student has asked for a reference for one specific job, I’ll generally provide some comments about how the student is a good fit for that job (If I believe they are).

Similarly, if the student sends through the job description, I’ll also try to link the information in my recommendation letter to the job’s specific requirements.

However, many students would benefit from one general recommendation letter that will suffice for several positions.

I’ll usually ask the student whether they want a job specific or general letter. The general letter could be used over and again, so it’s often preferred by students.

In my experience, students really appreciate a generalized letter. This means they don’t have to go back and constantly keep asking people for a letter for each job. It is awkward every time, so they love to get permission to use the one letter multiple times!

For those students, I’ll send them a pdf of the signed letter and let them use it as long as they like. So long as I’m comfortable with everything I’ve said on it, what do I care how many times it’s used!?

7. Should I share what I’ve written with the Student?


In my opinion, if you write something about a student, they deserve to know what you’ve written. If I’m writing something I’d be uncomfortable about them seeing, then my policy is not to write anything at all.

If you haven’t got anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.

I know readers of this post will disagree with me on this point. I’m sure some of you write things that are negative or could be perceived in a bad light by a prospective employer. That’s your prerogative.

My personal policy, though, is to only write true, accurate and positive points – or write nothing at all.

The better the student is, the better quality the positive points will be. The best students’ recommendation letters will stand out above the rest.

So, whenever I send off a recommendation letter, I’ll always email the student with a copy of what I wrote.

8. What if the Employer asks Questions I Cannot Answer?

This happens all the time.

I teach in an Education department. The prospective employer almost always asks something like: “Please comment on the candidate’s ability to work with children.”

Well, I’m the student’s professor. I don’t know how well they interact with children!

So, I’ll usually say:

  • I cannot answer that question, because I have not seen the candidate do this task;
  • However, I can say that the student has shown a longstanding interest in conducting the task, as reflected in the fact that they completed a degree on the topic!

Here, I think I’ve been honest and complimentary – which as you’ve surely noticed, is my policy on all these things.

Final Thoughts

how to write a reference letter for a student

In my opinion, a reference letter for a student is not only a rewarding aspect of the job of an educator, but it’s also a responsibility we have to our students. There are of course exceptions that I’ve outlined above. But by following some of the above strategies, you can pen a letter of recommendation that’s high quality and supports your students as they move into their profession.

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Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]

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