Writing Letters of Recommendation

September 25, 2013

One of the important "service" responsibilities of academics is to write letters of recommendation. For some people, this activity — precisely because of the responsibility it entails — is daunting. As a rhetorician, I pride myself on writing genuinely helpful letters of recommendation, but without becoming hyperbolic and without allowing the letter writing process to steal too much of my too-fleeting time.

One of my own professional organizations, the Modern Language Association, recently drafted a statement on letters of recommendation, particularly as they pertain to applicants for faculty positions. Most of the recommendations are a combination of common sense and common courtesy. The draft states in a "Background" section: "It is no wonder that some faculty members find the work of writing letters time consuming, perplexing, and sometimes unrewarding; they know that a single negative phrase can harm a student's application for a job or fellowship, but they have little evidence that entirely positive letters help students achieve their goals." Regardless, there’s no evidence that letters of recommendation are going extinct any time soon. In combination with the proper perspective, adopting some simple habits can make the work of writing letters of recommendation less daunting, and less work.

First, recognize that you don’t have to write a letter simply because you were asked. I have had students who performed at subpar levels in my classes ask me for letters to competitive programs. I’m unwilling to inflate anything on behalf of a student — it is dishonest and risks my own professional reputation. In such cases, you should politely decline to write the letter. It’s up to you to provide reasons or not, but I don’t feel you are obligated in very many cases to provide your reasoning. Aside from protecting your own reputation, you do a student a disservice by writing a lukewarm letter, damning with faint praise, than by declining to write a letter at all.

Also, don’t assume that you always know best. One time I told a student applying to a graduate pharmacy program that I could only write her a lukewarm letter, based on her class performance. She asked for the letter anyway, I reluctantly wrote a tepid note, and she ended up getting into her program. She even sent me a "thank you" card afterward.

It’s acceptable to set deadlines for writing letters. For example, if you’d like at least a month, or a week, or whatever, that’s fine. But if you’re rigid about such things, best to state so upfront so that students are aware of the time frames within which they need to work. If a student asks for a letter on 24 hours of notice, you’re perfectly reasonable and within your rights to refuse that letter. The more important the letter, the more lead time that you and students should allow for.

Next, realize that within the letter of recommendation genre, there are several important subgenres. I’ve tried to break them down here.  Obviously, others might categorize differently, and these categories may in some cases overlap with one another.

  • Letters for Awards or Honorifics — you may be asked to write such letters by a student, or by a fellow faculty member, or may be asked to initiate nominations yourself.  You might also write similar letters for faculty and staff at your own or other institutions.
  • Letters for Admission to a Competitive Program Internal to Your University — a student is applying to a program with a rigorous admissions process within your own institution, or perhaps a study abroad program.
  • Letters for Admission to Graduate Programs — a student is graduating and applying to a graduate or professional program.
  • Letters for Jobs — Congrats!  Your students have ambition and plans, and want you to help them land their dream job, or just a job.
  • Letters for Competitive Scholarships and Funding Opportunities — these opportunities may arise through your own institution or through outside sources of support.
  • Letters for Colleagues in the Profession — Letters of recommendation for jobs, tenure, editorial positions, administrative positions, and the like (if you are a junior faculty member you should only rarely, if ever, be asked to write letters that fall into this last category).

I think that simply realizing that these are semi-distinct genres, with slightly different expectations and demands, is the first step toward writing a great letter.

We all also need to be aware of the limitations of our endorsements.  If you are a graduate student, your letters will — for better or worse — carry less weight than those of a professor.  When I was a graduate student, I would often inform students who asked me for letters of this power dynamic, and many of them would still ask that I write a letter on their behalf.  Because graduate students tend to teach smaller classes, you may actually know the student better than most of their professors.  There are some situations in which one’s rank in the academy would make it inappropriate to write a letter, so be sensitive to that as well. It’s still a hierarchy, y’all.

Often, especially if a student is applying to some sort of an academic program, there will be an evaluation sheet that you are asked to fill out along with your letter.  These sheets will often provide Likert scales to evaluate the student in several qualitative categories.  I always fill these forms out before writing my letter, because I feel that they give at least a general indication of what qualities the program is looking for in successful candidates, qualities I can then address directly.

Ask students to provide the work they did in your class (ideally with your original comments) and/or relevant materials well in advance of the letter deadline.  I tell students at the beginning of the semester that if they ever ask me for a letter of recommendation that the first thing I will request is the work they produced in my class. I also ask students to let me know after the application process how things turned out.  I just like to know what happened.

Perhaps my most important piece of advice: Be specific in your letter.  This is part of the reason for requiring students to provide you with past work. I try to be as specific as possible about the student’s work and potential, and to contextualize my thoughts about the student.  If I can, I speak directly to how I think the student would succeed in the type of program that they are applying to.

Budget your time and your space.  The higher the stakes of the letter for the student, the more time you should budget, but you still have to stay within reason and protect your own time.  Many, many letters can be written effectively in just one page, at least for undergraduates.  Even for higher-stakes letters, like those for a graduate student applying for jobs, there tends to be an unspoken two-page limit. So, budget a length for the letter.  Then budget your time.  I try to budget my time savagely, knowing that tasks have a tendency to swell to fit the amount of time we set aside for them, and then some.

Use letterhead. Proofread. Present attractive document design. Your letter needs to look, as a physical object, sharp and professional, whether it is going out as hardcopy or softcopy. If you’re sending a softcopy version, get your department’s electronic letterhead. Looks, we all know, matter.

Realize the limits of your responsibilities. If your student or colleague is a worthy candidate, they won’t be difficult to endorse in meaningful ways. But your letter is only part of the total application package. It’s not your responsibility to "get the student in." Your responsibilities are finite. I think letter-writing is most daunting when we feel large responsibilities toward a student we really want to help. But that can be overwhelming. Try, however is best for you, to keep things in perspective. Unless your student is on death row and trying to get a stay of execution, your letter is not a life-or-death matter.

I think it’s important to state early in the letter how long, how well, and from what context you know the student. I think though that is also appropriate to talk about other parts of the student’s life when appropriate. For example, you will obviously speak to the student’s performance in your own class(es). But, if you know that the student founded a campus charity organization, and that information is relevant, you could certainly speak about that, within the bounds of your actual knowledge from talking to the student. If you’re not sure whether or not to include a piece of information ask two questions: Is it relevant? And are you, the letter writer, willing to vouch for it?

I think that people should also be aware that, as a teacher, it’s not up to you to decide what’s best for a student. For example, I once had an excellent student ask for a letter of recommendation so she could transfer out of my institution. I was sorry to see her leave. I expressed that to her, and tried to remind her about some of our wonderful programs, but of course agreed to write the letter, and a good one, for her. She had her own reasons for wanting to transfer, and it wasn’t my place to judge the validity of those reasons.

To really get a grasp on good letter-writing, talk to a senior faculty member who has had to read a lot, and a lot of varieties of, letters of recommendation.  And by all means, avoid hyperbole, and don’t lean on stock claims. I know of one case where a professor did both, and endorsed three candidates who subsequently applied for the same job as "one of the top two graduate students I’ve ever taught." Not a one of the three got an interview for the position.

This last bit may be a bit too earnest for some readers, but I do feel very strongly in the "value" of my name, and am cautious about using my name to endorse students in ways I’m not 100 percent comfortable with. I take letter-writing seriously, and I think there are plenty of good reasons to decline to write a letter.  However, if you never write letters, particularly for your undergraduate students, you probably are not standing on principles but just avoiding a responsibility we all share. Writing letters of recommendation is part of our duties that shouldn’t be shirked. Writing letters of recommendation, if you understand the genre, and budget time for them strictly, is one of the most tangible ways that we help students to advance their lives in meaningful ways.

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