Ultimately, the goal of a letter of recommendation is to provide context around the other elements of a students application. The more you can share about your specific, concrete experiences with a student, the more evaluators will be able to interpret the rest of the application.
The best letters have these qualities:
- Demonstrate that you actually know the student.
- Provide insight into a students’ capacity to learn and practice research skills (e.g., asking questions, inventing solutions, writing, speaking, collaborating, communicating, project management, programming).
- Offer informed predictions about their likelihood of success in research.
- Provide context about the status of a students’ interest development in their chosen areas of interest.
Others have written guidance as well. Shriram Krishnamurthi (Brown University) offers useful advice to graduate school recommendation letter writers, while NCWIT offers best practices for avoiding unconscious bias in letters of recommendation.
If you are writing a reference letter for a student or alum applying to the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP), the NSF offers tips for reference writers.