How To Write an Academic Reference Letter (With Example)

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published 11 October 2021

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

When university students apply for a graduate programme, they often submit a letter alongside their transcript and CV. Depending on their preference, they might ask a former professor, adviser or another mentor figure to compose a letter about their top qualifications. By learning strategies to write an academic reference letter, you can better highlight a student's skill sets and increase their chances of admission to a department. In this article, we show how to write an academic reference letter and provide both a template and an example you can use for your own writing process.

How to write an academic reference letter

If you're interested in learning how to write an academic reference letter, consider following these steps:

1. Address the letter

Ask the candidate for the recipient's contact information. Knowing about the institution beforehand can help you tailor the information appropriately. If the student is applying to more than one programme, consider addressing the letter To Whom It May Concern or to Admission Committee Members. Then, be sure to include the name of the institution and its full street address. Consider using a formal salutation to begin the letter.

Related: Professional Business Letter Format (With Examples)

2. Introduce yourself

In the first paragraph of the letter, explain who you are, including your institution, academic field and relationship to the student. Afterwards, you can include the name of the recipient's department and your general impression of their academic conduct. Detailing these qualifications and intentions at the beginning of a reference letter can help the reader better trust your recommendation. It's also important to write the letter on your institution's formal letterhead, as universities may use this document to verify your information.

3. Discuss your relationship with the student

In the introduction or body paragraph, explain how you know the student candidate specifically. For example, you might be their previous professor, academic adviser or a staff representative for their co-scholastic activity. You can also include how long you've known the student, as this approach may further demonstrate your ability to endorse their academic progress.

4. Outline the student's academic qualifications and strengths

Next, include a student's qualities that may help them succeed in a graduate programme. You can also include any relevant characteristics, hard skills and soft skills. It may be helpful to ask the student for their resume or CV, a list of activities and their transcript so you can have more comprehensive knowledge of their strengths. Then, consider using specific examples of your interactions with the student, like whether they problem-solved a challenging project or identified creative solutions during a classroom discussion.

Here are some examples of strengths they might have:

  • Social skills

  • Leadership aptitude

  • Research skills

  • Positive attitude

  • Strong work ethic

  • Academic enthusiasm:

  • Collaboration abilities

  • Time management

5. Consider the student's intended study area

As graduate students typically apply for a specific department, it's helpful to tailor their reference letters accordingly. Some departments may emphasise a student's grade point average, while others might focus on their interpersonal or analytical skills. It may be helpful to discuss this step with a student, as they may know information about a department's overall preferences. Consider the following examples of programmes and what type of information to include for each department:

  • Business programmes: These committees often appreciate reference letters that detail a student's managerial capabilities. To show their qualifications, you might include examples of their leadership and team-building skills or their negotiation capabilities.

  • Science and engineering programmes: You can highlight a student's research skills and their passion for a scientific topic, as these committees typically prefer candidates who plan to advance their field of study. Consider including relevant co-scholastic activities, like a robotics club.

  • Education programmes: Future instructors often require interpersonal skills and a dedication to social activism. These admissions committees often appreciation learning about how an educational student interacts with their pupils or if they serve a role in a volunteering service.

  • Arts programmes: When writing a reference letter for an art student, you might emphasise their creative aptitude, observation skills and ability to apply feedback. You can also describe art-based projects they accomplished and how your institution responded to them.

Related: Letter of Recommendation for Graduate School (With Example)

6. Include the student's extracurricular activities and achievements

In another body paragraph, provide information about a student's external events and accomplishments to indicate their value system. Some examples of activities may include a co-scholastic association or volunteering event. It's often important to emphasise any events that show how they might contribute to a particular department and programme. You can also highlight any academic awards they received, particularly for a field-related competition or a leadership experience.

7. Close the letter with a statement of endorsement

In the reference letter's final section, be sure to state your recommendation of the student both directly and clearly. Consider highlighting their potential contributions to a programme and their abilities to find success at a department. To help focus this statement, you can ask the student why they applied, what they hope to achieve during their time in graduate school and any future career plans they might have.

8. Include your contact information

At the end of the letter, provide your contact information and any additional information the recipient may request. Be sure to add your official phone number and academic email address so an admissions department can contact you with any follow-up questions. This action allows you to better advocate for the student's academic career. Afterwards, close the letter using another formal salutation and your full name.

Related: Please Do Not Hesitate to Contact Me Sign-off (With Examples)

Template of an academic reference letter

Here's a template you can use during your writing process:

[Your name and title]
[Your department]
[Your institution]
[Your location]
[Your phone number]
[Your email address]

[Current date]

[Recipient's name or title]
[Name of department]
[Name of the institution]
[Institution's street address]

Dear [name of recipient],

My name is [your first and last name], and I am a [your job title] in the [your department or division] at [your institution]. It is my honour to recommend [name of student] for the [degree programme] at [name of the recipient's institution]. [Student's name] was my [your relationship to them] for [length of time]. During this time, they [general details of their positive characteristics and academic conduct].

While attending [your institution] as a bachelor's student, [student's name] demonstrated outstanding skills in [specific capability related to their chosen graduate programme]. When I met them during [event] on [subject], they impressed me with their knowledge of the field and enthusiasm. In [another event], I recall [provide a specific example of their strengths and skill sets].

[Student's name] also served in [extracurricular activity related to their chosen programme]. They prioritise [value that relates to the extracurricular activity]. [Indicate how it can help them contribute to a department]. [Information about any awards the student received and why they earned them].

To close, I wholeheartedly recommend [student's name] for the [degree programme] at [recipient's university]. I believe they can be a valuable asset to their department and fellow pupils. [Detail their future career plans, if applicable]. If you have more questions, please contact me at [your phone number] or [email address].

Sincerely,

[Your first and last name]

Related: How To Write a Letter of Recommendation (With Example)

Example of an academic reference letter

Here's an example of an academic reference letter that uses the template above:

Dr Celia Xu, Ph.D.
Department of Educational Studies
Yuan University
Kowloon, Hong Kong
5555 5555
cxu@email.com

September 21, 2021

Admissions Committee
Department of Educational Studies
Zhuang University
555 Kwun Tong Road,
Kowloon, Hong Kong

Dear Admissions Committee Members,

My name is Dr Celia Xu, and I am a professor of Educational Studies at Yuan University. It is my honour to recommend Louis Chuen for the Master of Educational Studies programme at Zhuang University. In the past four years, Louis has taken five of my educational theory classes. During this time, he dedicated himself to developing his teaching skills and helping others, which earned him high marks every semester.

While attending Yuan University as a Bachelor's student, Louis has demonstrated outstanding leadership, communication and problem-solving skills. When I met him during an introductory course on pedagogy in Hong Kong, he impressed me with their knowledge of the field and overall enthusiasm. I also observed a class he student-taught last year and recall a discussion he led with primary school pupils. He innovated a learning approach that helped his class bond while learning complex topics, then answered their questions with patience and diligence.

Louis also served in a peer-tutoring programme on campus, helping others learn classroom material. He prioritises community-based learning and interpersonal interactions, which can help him succeed in a master's degree programme and contribute incredible positivity to your department. Last year, Louis also received the Student of the Year award in the Educational Studies Department.

To close, I wholeheartedly recommend Louis Chuen for the Master of Educational Studies programme at Zhuang University. I believe he can be a valuable asset to their department and fellow pupils. With this degree, he can help his future students find academic success. If you have more questions, please contact me at 5555 5555 or cxu@email.com.

Sincerely,

Dr Celia Xu, Ph.D.

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