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Letters of recommendation give applications greater credibility and can be decisive in selection processes

Andrea Ebert

Letters of recommendation, more common overseas, can be decisive in scholarship and research funding applications, as well as public positions or roles at multilateral institutions, especially when there are a large number of applicants. “In many cases, they can be the difference between two or more equally qualified candidates or research proposals,” says Elson Longo, a professor at the Department of Chemistry of the Federal University of São Carlos (UFSCar) and coordinator of the Center for the Development of Functional Materials (CDMF), one of the Research, Innovation, and Dissemination Centers (RIDCs) funded by FAPESP.

Widely requested in Europe and the USA, there are two elements that determine the value of a recommendation letter: the content itself, and the reputation of the person who wrote it. In academia, they are most often written by respected professors and researchers and describe the skills and abilities of the recommended student or professional, serving as a declaration of confidence. “To write a concise, clear, and honest letter about the capabilities of the recommendee, the author needs to know the person in depth,” says Sandra Maria Patrício Ribeiro, from the Department of Social and Workplace Psychology at the Institute of Psychology (IP) of the University of São Paulo (USP).

Unlike letters of introduction and intent, which people write for themselves, letters of recommendation act as a means of confirming a candidate’s professional or academic history, giving details about their past positions, duties, and performance, as well as their characteristics, such as creativity, leadership, or ability to work in a team. Thus, when well written, they can help demonstrate how well a candidate aligns with the institution’s values and objectives. “As well as honest and relevant information, a recommendation letter should demonstrate harmony between the candidate’s aspirations and their potential, which will certainly be revealed in later stages, such as during an interview,” explains Ribeiro.

Letters of recommendation are written specifically for their intended objective. Some companies and institutions offer detailed guidelines on how to write them, including structural templates that must be used. Others do not impose any rules, allowing the author to decide which aspects are most relevant. “It is important that the letter reveals the relationship between the two parties, describing not only the time they have spent together, but also the candidate’s performance during the time they have known each other,” adds Ribeiro. Although the letters can be written in many different ways, some information is essential, such as the full names and positions of the author and recommendee, as well as the date. It should also not be too long. Two pages is generally considered the ideal length. Institutions such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) publish tips on how to write good letters of recommendation on their website.

How to write a good letter of recommendation
• Talk to the candidate about the most important aspects to include
• Try not to be too vague or over complimentary
• Describe the contexts of times you have worked together
• Highlight skills, abilities, and attitudes to teamwork
• Use an informal writing style, but maintain a serious tone
• Make sure the text highlights the relationship between the two parties

The author of the letter and the person being recommended share joint responsibility for ensuring it fulfills its objectives. The person requesting the letter of recommendation should ask someone who is able to describe their experience, motivation, commitment, responsibility, and attitude to teamwork. The person writing the letter, meanwhile, must strive to present the content in an attractive way that clearly demonstrates how well they know the candidate. “Sometimes, requests to write a letter have to be turned down because the person does not know the candidate well enough,” says Marta Arretche, a professor from the Department of Political Science at the University of São Paulo (USP) and a researcher at the Center for Metropolitan Studies (CEM), another RIDC funded by FAPESP.

Anyone writing a recommendation should take care not to go over the top with praise. Letters that compliment the candidate too much can compromise the assessment by suggesting that the writer is not impartial. “Some institutions outside Brazil even have databases of information provided by letter authors, which can be used to assess whether certain authors tend to be highly complimentary or often misrepresent candidates,” warns the researcher. However, texts that appear vague and generic can have little impact on the assessors. “Describing a situation where the author worked with the candidate or wrote an article together makes the letter feel more authentic,” adds Arretche.

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There are several ways that candidates can help make the letter writing process easier for the author, such as providing supporting material to facilitate the task. Letters of intent and introduction that briefly describe the candidate’s objectives in relation to the position are often useful. “When asking someone to write you a recommendation letter, you have to take into account the time of year,” explains Longo, from CDMF. The researcher manages a team of approximately 150 people, and says that on average, he writes 8–10 letters of recommendation per month, but can reach double that number in January, June, and December. “At these times of the year, more people are applying for graduate programs, scholarships, and jobs.” Although it is possible to write a letter in a short time, it is best to ask the author at least one month in advance. Extra time should be given if the letter needs to be written in another language if the institution being applied to is located abroad. “It is possible to write a letter of recommendation in one day, but this differs for every author. It is important to give them at least 30 days’ notice,” says Longo.

Although the process involves people who know each other, it is not uncommon for the letter to be confidential, with the candidate remaining unaware of what is written. “Sending a letter directly to the institution can make it more credible—the assessor will know that the text was not written simply to please the candidate,” says Rafael Alcadipani, a professor from the São Paulo School of Business Administration (EAESP) at the Getulio Vargas Foundation (FGV). As well as ensuring the information is truthful, it is essential that it remains confidential. “A letter of recommendation is a confidential document that should not be circulated outside the institutions involved,” he concludes.