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Leslie Leonard is a Ph.D. candidate in American literature and American studies at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. You can follow her on Twitter @lesliemleo.

As graduate students, we wear a lot of different professional hats: researcher, writer, student, advisee, instructor, peer mentor, reviewer, committee member, conference presenter, and that’s just to name a few. However, one role that we’re often expected to fill as instructors, but are rarely trained for, is that of recommender or professional reference for our students. Despite the lack of training, however, we still receive emails from nervous students looking for letters of recommendation or asking if they can list us as a reference. Knowing that your word could so directly influence a student’s future is a daunting responsibility. While other articles help graduate students navigate the difficult task of asking for their own reference letters from faculty, this guide is for all of us left to navigate the complicated task of writing a recommendation letter.

Do I Say Yes?

It can be easy to forget that we have the ability to turn down such requests, but there are situations where it can be beneficial to do so (for both you and the student). Obviously, if you know that you have nothing helpful to say on their behalf, turning them down is a kindness; if you don’t have anything nice to say about a student, then don’t say anything at all. But it’s also recommended that you don’t write a recommendation letter for a student you can’t easily remember. If they didn’t make enough of an impression in your course for you to know who they are, then you probably won’t be able to write convincingly about their particular strengths and abilities.

It’s also worth considering your own time and willingness to take on extra work. Don’t be afraid to guard your time, as you don’t want to overextend yourself, even on behalf of your students. Similarly, remember that your letter has a very real impact on the student’s opportunities; as a result, if you are unable or unwilling to put in the time and effort needed to draft a helpful letter, then saying no may be best for both of you.

Context Required

With the previous point in mind, it’s also necessary to remember that this student chose you as their recommender. Even if you don’t necessarily remember them (or don’t remember them particularly fondly), it’s worth bearing in mind that, in asking for a letter, they believed that you would support them and speak helpfully on their behalf, and that vulnerability should count for something. Similarly, even if a student asks for a letter because they have no other faculty to turn to, it still means that they see you as a familiar point of contact, which can be a meaningful anchor for students who may be more familiar with large, depersonalized lectures.

While you still shouldn’t write a letter for a student that you can’t honestly recommend or don’t remember, avoid reacting to any requests with frustration or bewilderment. Instead, remember that the student took the time (and was vulnerable enough) to reach out for help and thought of you as a source of support, and bear in mind that your words will have a real impact on their future, for better or worse.

New Uses for Old Papers

Once you’ve agreed to write a letter of recommendation, take some time to look back through anything that they submitted to you in the past, or ask them to send you some of their old work. Not only will this refresh your memory, but it will also offer you invaluable insight into what kind of student they were, what their work focused on most, what they did well, where their strengths lie and so on -- all necessary content for the letter itself.

Having their previous work on hand will also help you find some specific examples to better demonstrate their fit for the position. While many letter writers will be speaking to the various skills of their recommendees, you’ll be able to refer to actual moments in their work. You might also ask them for a copy of their most current résumé or part of their application materials to help focus your recommendation. And, of course, it is always a good idea to simply ask them what skills and abilities they hoped you might highlight in your letter so that you can be as specific (and as helpful) as possible.

What Makes a Good Recommendation?

If you’ve never seen a recommendation letter before, familiarize yourself with the genre and read some examples of positive ones. Remember that the purpose is to speak to the specific skills and strengths of your student as they relate to the particular position or opportunity, so also take some time to look at what they are applying for and what kinds of things are being asked. If the application is looking for someone who works well with others, you’ll want to emphasize the student’s ability to collaborate with their peers and then provide concrete examples from your classroom that demonstrate that ability. Similarly, if the position is more interested in their academic prowess, then you’ll want to draw on some of the work that they completed for you and highlight specific things that they did well.

Ultimately, a good recommendation is one that will earnestly recommend a student, list their strengths and positive qualities, and provide specific examples that demonstrate those strengths. It’s a significant responsibility and time commitment, and because of the impact it can have on students’ futures, shouldn’t be taken lightly.

Have you run into difficulty writing a recommendation letter before? Share your thoughts in the comments or at @GradHacker.

[Image by user Pixabay and used under Creative Commons Licensing]

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