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Streamlining Recommendation Writing with a Letter Inventory Guide

Mon Mar 18, 2024 at 07:30 AM

Each spring, my inbox fills letters of recommendation requests from students pursuing graduate or professional schools. As an instructor of multiple upper-level courses, I expect this and embrace it as it plays an important part of how I fill my “what-brings-me-joy bucket.” Being part of students’ journeys to their next stage is rewarding, and something that I take very seriously as part of my job. However, producing a well-written letter can take time and effort to craft and personalize. In this tip, I share my solutions for streamlining the letter writing process to produce a meaningful, personalized document that may help students in the admissions process.

Using a Recommendation Letter Inventory Guide Recommendation Writing Process

Gathering personalized and specific information to support a recommendation is typically the hardest, most time-consuming part of the writing process. Using a letter inventory guide can assist you with information gathering. 

Using a Recommendation Letter Inventory Guide  

First, it is important to decide if you have time to write a strong letter. It’s okay to say no if you don’t! At this point, I don’t recommend using generative AI for more efficient letter writing (more on that later).

If you do have time, remember that each student has their own story that is unique to their educational journey, and a strong letter of recommendation will demonstrate this to an admissions committee. To solicit this information quickly, I ask students to complete a Recommendation Letter Inventory Guide. This has several advantages.

  • Ensures that all students are aware of the requirements for letters of recommendation. Differences in student cultural capital may impact what information they initially provide when asking for a letter of recommendation. This can lead to unknowingly absent key achievements and information. By providing all students upfront with the specific information that you will use to write the letter, it ensures that every student has the opportunity to  describe all their successes and accomplishments, not just the students that know details about the letter writing process.
  • Establishes expectations and a timeline for completing the letter. Requesting the Inventory Guide completion with a deadline ensures mutual respect for your time and their requirements.
  • Uses a common guide to help remove bias. A common mistake in writing recommendations is to include effort, and not accomplishments for marginalized groups.  For example, describing a student as “hardworking” or focusing on effort  as opposed to their specific outcomes and actions. Using the Inventory Guide allows every student to provide the same information on their accomplishments, whereas a face-to-face interview, or simply a resume, may not yield the same, consistent information. Focusing on achievements and qualifications reduces bias. In addition, having the right information up front allows you to write a substantial letter; letters for marginalized groups are often shorter and include less emphasis on achievements. When writing the recommendation, you can use these tips about avoiding gender bias in reference writing or this checklist to help you avoid implicit bias. 
  • Improves efficiency. You are not doing the leg work! If you are pressed for time, this avoids having to schedule an additional meeting with the student. However,I would actually recommend doing both! Speaking with students in person gives you a chance to have additional conversations about their goals and future.
  • Provides a personal voice. Sometimes what makes a student stand out is their efforts beyond the classroom. This questionnaire gives them the space to remind you about these connections. For example, conversations about shared interests that overlap with course material, initiation of career, volunteer or research opportunities resulting from your advising, or hobbies that demonstrate a relevant skill or disposition. 

Should you use AI tools to speed up the process?

In short, I wouldn’t recommend it. 

Multiple AI technology options, including textcortex,, and, can quickly craft a common structured letter to increase efficiency. Proponents suggest that AI technology can reduce implicit bias in letter of recommendation language, such as gender stereotyped terms. When considering the continued gaps in underrepresented minority education and career advancement, this has the potential to alleviate inequities in admissions and hiring processes. However, a separate study found that AI tools reproduced gender bias. A letter that includes a human voice and specifically tailored achievements and competencies resonates with authenticity and should positively stand out to an admissions committee. This authentic feel is missing in AI generated text. 

Additionally, AI-generated letters may be recognized by admissions software, and viewed less favorably, or even excluded. For example, the CASPA Physician Assistant school application service asks recommenders to confirm “I personally evaluated the applicant and wrote all aspects of the evaluation myself… I did not use a generative AI platform (including but not limited to ChatGPT) to write or modify any of the contents of my evaluation.” Thus, use of AI could put students at risk of admission. 

References and Resources

Save and adapt a Google Doc version of this teaching tip.

About the Author

Sarah Hosch is the Faculty Director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning and a Special Instructor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Oakland University. She teaches all levels of biology coursework and her interests include evidence-based teaching practices to improve student learning gains and reduce equity gaps in gateway course success. Sarah loves exploring nature, cooking, and exercising. 

Edited by Rachel Smydra, Faculty Fellow in the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at Oakland University. Others may share and adapt under Creative Commons License CC BY-NC.

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