Patrick Bigsby is an alumnus, former employee, and lifelong wrestling fan of the University of Iowa. Sometimes, he tweets.
Teaching, as my fellow GradHackers have written and as Edward James Olmos has demonstrated, is the sort of vocation that philosophers must have had in mind when they asserted that hard work is its own reward. Student successes are teacher successes; we feel pride in our students’ achievements and share in their joy as they achieve goals inside of and outside of our classes. The longer our teaching careers, the more opportunities we have to see our students go on to bigger and better things. For me, that thrill has never diminished, which might explain why I enjoy every opportunity to write a letter of recommendation.
Although a good recommendation shouldn’t be about the recommender, I admit at least some of my recommending glee is selfish. When a student asks for my recommendation, it’s a vote of confidence in my work as a teacher and in that student’s own experience in my class. When my students are proud enough of their work under my supervision to want it memorialized in a letter of recommendation and comfortable enough in their relationship with me to ask for my help, albeit minor, in leveling up their academic or professional lives, I must have done an okay job helping them this far.
I must also admit to letting my competitive streak come into play as a recommender. I try to follow up with the students I recommend to find out the results of their applications, keeping an obsessive list of confirmed successes just in case the Guinness Book adds a new category. The glory, of course, belongs to the students; the strength of their accomplishments and characters outweighs the comically minuscule clout a letter from me carries. But I’m excited to be along for the ride: just because the Greatest Of All Time didn’t need my help to win doesn’t mean I didn’t whoop it up after the game. In the interests of increasing the amount of effective recommendations and decreasing the amount of anxiety about writing them, I’d like to share some of my strategies for writing a helpful recommendation. I had never written a letter of recommendation prior to my first semester as a teaching assistant and I doubt my earliest efforts did much good for that first batch of recommendees - hopefully my trials-and-errors can provide some basic guidance to other young teachers.
I’ve already owned up to how flattering and validating it can feel to be approached by a student seeking a recommendation. It’s easy to succumb to that feeling and take on any and all recommendation requests. But, as with many satisfying experiences, just because you can doesn’t mean you should. Teach long enough and you will eventually be approached by a student who, for one reason or another, isn’t someone you feel comfortable recommending for the particular job, program, or scholarship they’re seeking. It doesn’t have to be personal: maybe that individual is simply a little too optimistic about the level their work is currently at. As a recommender, you’re doing that person a disservice by encouraging her to seek out a situation where you do not believe she will succeed. In these situations, it’s perfectly acceptable to decline and redirect requests for recommendations. Claiming you don’t know the student well enough or claiming that your letter wouldn’t have the kind of influence he wants or simply claiming you’re too busy to turn the letter around on deadline are all valid excuses, but I would recommend coupling that excuse with a counteroffer. Spending some time with that student talking about ways to strengthen their application or seeking alternative opportunities will be significantly more helpful than an insincere letter of recommendation.
Like most other activities in graduate school, writing an effective letter of recommendation will require you to do some research. No two applications will be completely alike - GradHacker application gurus have applied this idea to graduate school admissions and job searches - and your letter of recommendation will be more effective if it is tailored to both the recommendee and the goal. To help me write a better letter, I usually ask the requesting student for three pieces of information: a current résumé, a copy of the application instructions, and a draft of her ideal letter of recommendation. The résumé helps to deepen my familiarity with the student. Although I try to learn about my students’ lives outside of the four walls of my classroom whenever I can, I don’t have their complete biographies committed to memory. Inadvertently omitting a key relevant detail about a student’s work ethic, experience, or skills that might demonstrate their qualification for the position they’re seeking would only undermine my recommendation. The application instructions help to ensure my letter meets the student’s needs logistically and also fills in me in on the end goal which, more often than not, is a program I’m unfamiliar with. I’ve never received the E. David Cater Scholarship in Chemistry, but that shouldn’t prevent me from being able to explain why my student is particularly deserving of it. Finally, the student’s draft letter helps me understand why the student thinks he is a good candidate, identifies the student’s goals in applying, and clarifies why the student thinks I, of all possible recommenders, can speak to that candidacy. I don’t sign my name to the student’s draft, but I do refer to it frequently while writing my own letter. If I find the two versions aren’t aligning, that is cause for a frank conversation with the student about what I do and don’t feel comfortable endorsing in their application.
Finally, evaluate the final product. Beyond proofreading for style and mechanics, ensure your letter of recommendation accurately reflects your sincere beliefs about the individual you are recommending. Although the success belongs to the recommendee, the credibility risk is solely the recommender’s. If someone receives your full-throated endorsement and later turns out to be ill-suited for the position for which you endorsed them, your influence and reliability take a hit in the eyes of the evaluators. This risk is magnified if the student is in your field and the letter’s readers might now or someday also be assessing your fitness as a teacher, scholar, or colleague. In this way, an insincere or inaccurate letter of recommendation jeopardizes both the recommendee and the recommender.
What are your tips, tricks, policies, and procedures for writing great letters of recommendation? Share them below in the comments!
[Image provided by Flickr user Bill Barber and used under a Creative Commons license]