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Writing References

Whether it is a letter from a faculty member evaluating a student’s work in class, an evaluation of a student teacher on a teaching assignment, or a report from an employer on a student’s progress in his/her cooperative education assignment, what can the evaluator say or write? Reference writers want to know if they will get in trouble if they write that the person has a performance problem or needs to improve in certain areas.

The answers to these questions lie in another set of questions: To whom is this information to be given? Is that person entitled to the information? What is the purpose of the information? Is the information verified and accurate?

Suggested Guidelines for Reference Givers:

  • Provide a written reference only if a student asked you to write one and has given your name as a reference. A prospective teacher requesting letters of recommendation for a credential file should provide a letter of recommendation form.
  • Do not disclose information regarding a student’s education record without the written consent of the student.
  • State in the reference letter, “This information is confidential, should be treated as such, and is provided at the request of [name of student or applicant], who has asked me to serve as a reference.” Statements such as this give justification for the communication and leave no doubt that the information was not given to hurt a person’s reputation.
  • If possible, respond to the specific inquiry about the student or job applicant. Direct the response to the particular person who requested the information. Relate references to the specific position for which the person applied and the work that the applicant will perform.
  • If a “to whom it may concern” reference letter is requested, document that this is the type of reference requested and that the student or job applicant takes responsibility for disseminating the letter to the proper persons.
  • Be factual; do not editorialize.
  • Avoid vague statements. Information given should be based upon personal knowledge/observation of the student through direct contact with the student.
  • Avoid giving personal opinions or feelings. However, if you make subjective statements or give opinions because they are requested, clearly identify them as opinions and not as fact. If you give an opinion, explain the incident or circumstances upon which you base the opinion.
  • Be able to document all information you release.
  • Do not mention characteristics that can be the basis of discrimination, such as age, sex, marital status, race, nationality, color, religion, medical information or handicapping condition.
  • Do not distribute or show the letter to any third party. It is your choice whether to give the student a copy of the letter.
  • A student may waive the right to inspection of references if the waiver is in writing and signed by the student and is voluntary. You are legally permitted to ask a student to waive the right to see the letter and can refuse to write one without the waiver. Realistically, though, even a confidential letter sometimes makes its way into the student’s hands.
  • The safest policy: If you can’t write an overall positive letter that you feel comfortable sharing with the student, don’t write the letter.
  • Sample reference letters are available in Career Services.