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Do's and Don'ts of a Recommendation Letter

The Do’s and Don’ts of Writing a Recommendation Letter

Writing a recommendation letter is like painting a picture; you want to bring out the best features of the subject in a way that is both compelling and relevant. Whether you’re recommending someone for admission to a prestigious university, a competitive scholarship, or a specific course of study, the effectiveness of your letter hinges on your ability to tailor your words to the context. Let’s explore the essential do’s and don’ts of writing recommendation letters for different universities and courses, ensuring your message resonates perfectly with the intended audience.

Do: Understand the Specific Requirements

Before you start writing, it’s essential to understand the specific requirements and expectations of the university or course. Each institution or program has its own criteria and values. For example, what Harvard looks for in an MBA candidate might differ significantly from what a culinary arts program at the Culinary Institute of America values. Knowing these nuances helps you highlight the most relevant qualities and achievements of the student you recommend.

Don’t: Be Vague or Generic

A recommendation letter should never be vague or generic. Avoid broad statements like “She is a good student” or “He would be an asset to your program.” Such comments lack impact and fail to provide meaningful insights. Instead, focus on specific examples and detailed anecdotes that illustrate the candidate’s unique strengths and accomplishments.

Do: Highlight Specific Skills and Achievements

When writing a recommendation letter, specificity is key. Think about what makes the individual stand out in the context of the program they’re applying to. Did they lead a successful project in their mechanical engineering course at MIT? Were they a standout performer in their culinary arts program at Le Cordon Bleu? Highlighting specific skills and achievements that align with the program’s requirements can make a significant difference.


For a candidate applying to various programs, consider these specific highlights:

  • Stanford Machine Learning Program: Mention their proficiency in programming languages such as Python and R, and their experience with machine learning frameworks like TensorFlow and PyTorch. Discuss specific projects where they applied machine learning techniques to solve complex problems, such as developing a predictive model for healthcare outcomes or creating an algorithm for natural language processing.
  • MIT Mechanical Engineering Program: Highlight their role in leading a successful engineering project, such as designing an innovative mechanical device or optimizing a manufacturing process. Emphasize their strong analytical skills, creativity, and teamwork.
  • Le Cordon Bleu Culinary Arts Program: Describe their exceptional culinary skills, creativity in menu design, and ability to work under pressure. Mention any awards or recognitions they have received, as well as their dedication to mastering culinary techniques.
  • Harvard Business School MBA Program: Focus on their leadership abilities, strategic thinking, and success in managing projects or teams. Provide examples of how they have driven business growth, improved operational efficiency, or led successful marketing campaigns.
  • Johns Hopkins Nursing Program: Highlight their clinical skills, empathy, and experience in patient care. Discuss their ability to handle high-stress situations, their dedication to patient advocacy, and any relevant certifications or specialized training they have completed.

Don’t: Include Irrelevant Information

Stay focused on relevant qualities and achievements. Including unrelated information can dilute the effectiveness of your letter. For instance, while it might be impressive that the candidate won a high school debate competition, it might not be relevant for their application to a computer science program at MIT. Stick to details that directly pertain to the course or profession they are pursuing.

Do: Use a Professional Tone

Maintain a professional tone throughout the letter. This doesn’t mean you can’t be enthusiastic, but your language should be formal and respectful. Avoid slang or overly casual expressions. Remember, the letter reflects not only on the candidate but also on you as a professional.


Incorrect: “John is an awesome guy who totally knows his stuff when it comes to AI. He’s super chill and always ready to help out.”

Correct: “John is an outstanding candidate with a deep understanding of artificial intelligence. He consistently demonstrates a high level of expertise and is always willing to assist his peers with complex problems.”

Don’t: Exaggerate or Lie

Honesty is crucial. Exaggerating or fabricating information can harm the candidate’s chances if the truth is discovered. Admissions officers and employers value integrity and can often detect inconsistencies. Focus on genuine strengths and achievements. Authentic praise is far more powerful than inflated claims.

Do: Provide Contact Information

Include your contact information at the end of the letter. This shows you are open to further discussion or clarification, adding credibility to your recommendation. Provide your email address and phone number, and express your willingness to provide additional information if needed.

Don’t: Forget to Proofread

Errors in your letter can undermine its professionalism. Take the time to proofread carefully. Read the letter out loud to catch any mistakes or awkward sentences. If possible, ask a colleague to review it as well. A polished, error-free letter reflects well on both you and the candidate.


Incorrect (how many typos can you spot?): “Jane has excellent comunication skills and is very dedicatted to work. She would be asset to any organizatoin.”

Correct: “Jane has excellent communication skills and is highly dedicated to her work. She would be an asset to any organization.”

Do: Tailor Each Letter

Each recommendation letter should be customized to the specific individual and the opportunity they are pursuing. Mention the name of the program, course, or position, and align your letter with its particular requirements. This demonstrates your genuine support and attention to detail.

Don’t: Be Afraid to Decline

If you don’t feel you can write a strong, positive recommendation, it’s better to decline. Writing a lukewarm or negative letter can do more harm than good. Politely explain to the individual that you don’t think you’re the best person to provide a recommendation and, if possible, suggest someone else who might be better suited for the task.

Politely Declining Example:

Hi John, I appreciate your request for a recommendation. However, I believe there might be someone else better suited to write a strong letter for you. Perhaps you could ask Dr. Smith, who has worked closely with you on your recent project and can speak more comprehensively about your skills and accomplishments.”


Crafting a recommendation letter is a significant responsibility that can greatly impact someone’s future. By following these dos and don’ts of recommendation letter writing tailored to different universities and courses, you can ensure your letter is compelling, professional, and effective. Remember to be specific, honest, and professional, tailoring each letter to the individual and the opportunity they are seeking. Whether it’s for Harvard Business School, Stanford Medical School, or the Culinary Institute of America, your thoughtful recommendation can open doors to new possibilities. Take the time to do it right, and your words will help shape the future of those you support.