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Ask the Administrator: Limiting Letters of Recommendation

A new, but beleaguered, correspondent writes:

March 31, 2010

A new, but beleaguered, correspondent writes:

I'm hoping that you might have some advice on limiting letters of recommendation. I teach large undergraduate classes and some smaller graduate classes in the humanities at a 4-year college. Students ask me to write at least 100 letters of recommendation each year, ranging from recommendations to be a dorm assistant, summer camp counselor, study abroad student, and intern, to Ph.D. programs. I am sympathetic to students needing letters: they are required parts of many applications, and I suspect that students really wish they didn't have to ask faculty to write them.

The problem is that I am overwhelmed with requests for letters, often from students I barely know. Would you, or your readers, have any guidance on how to address the many, many requests? I have tried pointing out to a student that I don't know him/her well, only to hear that I know him/her better than any other faculty. Writing letters is essentially volunteer work at my school; they are not included in any kind of year-end assessment of productivity.

Would you or your readers have any suggestions on the problem of recommendation letters for faculty?

Been there. On both sides, actually.

I'm not a fan of letters of recommendation generally; if it were up to me, they'd be consigned to the ashbin of history. The references that I've found helpful, to the extent I've ever found any helpful, have been phone calls. Letters of recommendation can date fairly quickly, they assume a much more highly developed common culture than is usually the case, and they've fallen victim to a terrible epidemic of grade inflation. (I don't know how much of that reflects fear of litigation and how much reflects common courtesy, but there it is.) But for whatever reason, many of the opportunities that students want to pursue require them.

One way to limit the impact of letters is to have relatively standardized content. I don't recommend that, though, since standard letters usually read like standard letters; in many cases, the student would have been better off if you had simply refused. An honest 'no' is easier to handle than a half-assed 'yes.'

Another, and one that I've seen in my travels, is to tell students upfront that you don't write letters for students who didn't get A's, and/or who you haven't had for multiple classes. Some sort of bright-line qualifier based on something the students can understand might help cut down the numbers, though there's always the danger of excluding an especially wonderful student you really didn't want to exclude.

You could always refuse altogether, though I'd argue that you'd be penalizing the innocent.

Some people ask students to write the letters themselves, and they'll sign it if they consider it acceptable. In the age of email, you could ask the student to send you an electronic copy to make editing quick and easy -- just tweak whatever needs tweaking, sign off, and you're done. This could allow reasonable customization while still minimizing your time commitment. Of course, you're taking a chance that a student will write something completely absurd, but you could probably head that off with a relatively short checklist of helpful hints that you could give any student who asks.

I suspect, though, that this question is best crowdsourced, so I'll throw it out there. Wise and worldly readers, have you found a way to handle letters of recommendation without either killing yourself or stranding your students? I'll be fascinated to see what expedients people have developed.

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.


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