Writing a Killer Grad School Recommendation Outline
We all wish for professors, mentors, and supervisors who are perspicacious and always observant of each of our remarkable achievements. Unfortunately, these sorts of people are hard to come by. While you may take great care when choosing your recommenders, even the best recommenders may have trouble remembering all of the details of your achievements. For this reason, it is often helpful to provide your recommender with a self-assessing outline delineating your noteworthy qualities and accomplishments. This outline can serve as a resource that your recommender can use as a reference while drafting his or her recommendation letter.
Your outline should be a bullet pointed summary that includes your strongest attributes and concrete examples of moments where you have demonstrated these attributes. The outline for your recommender should not differ significantly from your outline for your college admissions essay (see Setting Your Outline in Line). There should be three main components for this outline: (1) your theme, (2) your subcategories (these will be one to three of your strongest attributes), and (3) your supporting evidence. Unlike your essay or personal statement outlines, this outline should not include introspection. The introspective statements in the recommendation letter will come from your recommender’s own opinion about your potential for success.
The theme to every recommendation letter is the same: that you would be an excellent addition to the student body at the university to which you are applying. You should generally advertise yourself as a great student for any university. However, it is highly advantageous to advertise yourself as a great fit for each program to which you apply (above all others).
2. Subcategories: list up to three of your best attributes
List attributes that you have demonstrated to the recommender for whom you are drafting this outline. The reason for which schools ask for several letters of recommendation is that they expect you to have several positive and distinct qualities that you demonstrate in various settings in your life. Do not give the same outline to different recommenders. A previous employer cannot attest to a student’s studying habits in the same way that a professor cannot speak on a student’s performance in the workplace. Think about what sort of assessments your recommender is qualified to make.
Be forward-thinking when selecting your attributes. Think of qualities that predispose you to be successful as a graduate student. Most programs look for the same qualities in students: involvement, competence, diligence, the ability to work as part of a team, leadership potential, and drive.
3. Supporting Evidence: how have you showcased your attributes?
Be concrete and specific. Cite instances where you displayed your best attributes. Do not be afraid to give too much detail here; your recommender can choose to include or omit whichever portions that he or she would like. This should serve as a reminder for your recommender, so include memory-provoking details. Place the moment in a setting and give a time reference (e.g., during a final presentation; the week after the first exam, a few days before a long break). Try to avoid hyperboles and superlatives—simply explain the circumstances under which you have displayed the qualities that you claim to have.
This outline is different from your personal outline in that it is supplementary rather than prescriptive. Your recommenders will use pieces of your outlines in your recommendations at their discretion. The outline should be used to indicate to your recommender the qualities that you are trying to advertise. We have outlined below a way of presenting the outline in a clear and direct way to maximize its efficacy.
Step 1: Write your objective at the top of the outline. This will include your theme and your subcategories in a succinct sentence; think of this as a working thesis that you may change as you think of supporting evidence.
Step 2: Write down your subcategories (one to three of your best attributes) as bullet points beneath your objective.
Step 3: Under each subcategory, write one to three indented bullets that include your supporting evidence.
These should be concrete examples that portray you in the best possible light and demonstrate your positive qualities.
Step 4: You may choose to include a short conclusion (one to three sentences). Use this as an opportunity to explain the implications of these attributes.
Here is a sample outline written for Jacob’s undergraduate research program supervisor:
Objective: I feel that I would be an excellent addition to Imaginary University’s computer science PhD program because of my creativity, my work ethic, and my ability to collaborate with a team (quality A, quality B, and quality C).
• Creativity (Quality A)
– I contributed original and useful new project ideas, like constructing consistent models of spatial human mobility through Python programs.
– Developed my own algorithms in early March for analyzing data sets that proved valuables towards the progress of the human mobility project and continues to be useful to the research team.
– While undergraduate researchers are only expected to be familiar with Python and MATLAB, I made use of additional languages like C++, Java, and FORTRAN to suit the needs of each task.
• Work ethic (Quality B)
– I had near perfect attendance at meetings and consistently provided helpful and informative progress reports.
– When several important program files generated by past undergraduate research assistants were lost after a fire in January, I was tasked with rewriting many of them and ultimately made improvements on several of them.
– When one of my fellow undergraduate researchers fell ill for a week during a crucial week for the project’s completion, I successfully completed both his work and my own.
• Teamwork (Quality C)
– I formed a part of a team of four undergraduate students selected to assist researchers in your lab consistently worked effectively to meet deadlines with quality work.
– In February you asked me to take the lead in organizing my teammates towards gathering and analyzing several large data sets, after which we were able to complete the task ahead of schedule.
– My creativity will allow me to contribute to a project or academic setting in a uniquely useful way. I also have the ability to continue being productive without frequently having mind blocks or coming to standstills. (Implications of quality A)
– My work ethic will enable me to assume great responsibility, consistently contribute to projects, and perform reliably as a researcher. I am prepared to take advantage of each opportunity that Imaginary University’s PhD program offers (Implications of quality B).
– My ability to fit in well in a team and take leadership roles when necessary sets me aside from applicants who are accustomed to always working alone or who find it difficult to take or provide constructive criticism. (Implications of quality C).
Your outline should not be longer than one typed page. Remember that this is merely a resource for the recommender, so you do not want to write the letter for them.
In a Nutshell: The Do’s and Don’t’s of Writing Your Recommendation Outline
- Be specific.
- Portray yourself in the best possible light. Make it clear that you will be an active member of the university’s student body and a successful alumnus.
- Include specific, memory-triggering details.
- Write separate outlines for each of your recommenders, focusing each outline on the attributes in support of which each recommender is qualified to write.
- Do your research. Make sure to pick qualities that show that you are a good fit.
- Say or reveal anything negative about yourself.
- Use flowery or hyperbolic language.
- Write introspective statements for your recommender.
- Focus on coming up with a flashy story. You want strong evidence, not theatrics.
These points should help you put together a strong outline to help your recommender with his or her letter. Put a significant amount of thought and time into this outline, since this is the only part of the recommendation letter to which you can contribute.
To assure that your recommender optimizes your letter of recommendation, it may be useful to show them our Recommendations for Graduate School Recommenders article, or download the PDF below.
The three sample recommendation letters that follow, which you can download by clicking on the link below, are effective because they detail what makes the students stand out as exceptional and because they paint individual pictures of each student. Note how these excerpts, excerpted from each of the three letters, individualize and humanize the student:
“I have been especially impressed by Janet’s determination and sparkle.”
“I enthusiastically supported her application for the student position on the Mythic University Board of Trustees for the same reasons. She was the runner-up for that distinguished post, and Mythic University lost out on a true leader. But I believe her time is yet to come.”
“In short, John is both scholarly and culturally entrenched, ambitious but not pretentious, self-deprecating yet confident, forthright but unassuming, delightfully irreverent yet appropriately respectful—a complex and whole human being.”
In addition, the writers of these three letters take advantage of many of the rhetorical strategies discussed in Chapters 3 and 4 of this manual: enhancing their own credibility, narrative technique, anecdotal evidence, recommending by citing others, and using active verbs and transitions.
Finally, a late paragraph in the last letter, at the prompting of the graduate scholarship application, even provides a few criticisms of the student. Because these criticisms are offered even-handedly and efficiently, I would argue that the letter has even more ethos, and it is noteworthy that the student still landed the desired scholarship.
Click here to download a pdf of three sample graduate school recommendation letters.