The Real Meanings of Letters of Recommendation

Professors complain about all the writing they have to do to get students into grad school, but Randal Doane wonders if they think enough about the process.

January 8, 2008

I find writing letters of recommendation for students to be an odious task. I certainly take joy when writing for my most talented students, but recommendation letters prove difficult to schedule into the duties of a semester, and their requests seem to arrive just at the moment when my to-do list looks manageably short. After watching my partner dedicate a trio of Saturdays to penning dozens of letters, I began to think about the letter of recommendation as the oddest of objects. The letter can have a long shelf life, and implicate the candidate and the referee long after its review by a graduate admissions committee. It thereby serves as a key currency in academic networks, and yet there is something filthy about this “lucre” that prevents professors and administrators from speaking plainly about the instrumental qualities of these letters, as well as the complex forces at work when a student solicits a letter.

In my first year of graduate studies, with the help of a fellow student, I caught a glimpse of how letters of recommendation circulate as a medium of exchange in dense professional networks. Jeffrey, a member of my cohort, had been admitted to the program with a four-year fellowship from the university. He was articulate and insightful, but managed in his first year to complete only enough coursework for one grade and five incompletes. Jeffrey withdrew in May, in order to campaign on behalf of the Socialist ticket in the 1996 presidential elections. During the admissions process, I had learned from the program chair that if “another new admit” -- Jeffrey -- had not enrolled, I would have received the fellowship myself. My program was not awash in funding opportunities, and this fellowship was non-transferable. Rumor had it that, in subsequent admission cycles, members of the admissions committee could not help but regard letters of recommendation from Jeffrey’s referees with skepticism.

The fact that a letter might outlive its purpose in the admission cycle never occurred to me as an undergraduate. The operative rule of thumb was that if a student earned a B+ or better in a course, he or she had the right to request a letter of recommendation. I had worked closely with two professors, but I was hard pressed to find a third referee. When I requested a letter from the professor of a senior seminar, I recognized her reluctance but pressed the issue, and -- based on some dubious advice -- offered to compose the letter myself. Years later, when I encountered a copy of her letter, I was impressed by her judicious addition of adverbs: “Randal Doane is apparently one of our strongest students in social psychology.” The right to a letter is no longer guaranteed, if it ever was. A colleague of mine assured me, “Just because you take my class -- even if you get an A- or a B+ -- you are not guaranteed a letter. I will decline a request to write a letter if it will not help the student in the admissions process.”

A strong letter, of course, begins no later than a student’s junior year, in a class in which he or she offers remarkable diligence in the assignments and class discussion, and makes contact with the professor during his or her office hours. The strength of a given letter is also shaped by the way in which a student solicits the letter. If the student is on campus, a referee has the right to expect a face-to-face meeting, which in turn offers the student the benefit of a true gauge of a professor’s regard. As Tara Kuther notes, in Graduate Study in Psychology: Your Guide to Success, “Pay attention to their demeanor. If you sense reluctance, thank them and ask someone else.”

It is, of course, up to the professor to recognize how these interactions are structured by the inegalitarian distribution of cultural capital in a class society. If we as professors and administrators fail to make clear the rules of the game to students (if not directly, then by way of the office of career services), we might expect first-generation college students to be less savvy than their well-heeled peers when asking for letters. A professor inclined to serve as a referee can outline the proper guidelines for deserving students, by asking for a dossier of the following items: a schedule of the letter due dates; a detailed curriculum vita; a writing sample; a well-edited personal statement; stamped and addressed envelopes or, for online submissions, the proper URLs.

Conscientious professors can also look out for students by finding out which of their colleagues are also being asked for letters. In most cases, three weeks notice should be plenty. When a student’s referees are among the more charismatic -- and, potentially, more self-absorbed -- figures on campus, students should be advised to allow for letters to take up to six weeks. For example, when I spoke with one of my referees about a number of late letters for post-graduate fellowships, he said, “But with a letter from me, 10 will get you 20.” (He failed to imagine the possibility, however, that some may regard his “10” as “5,” with deductions for tardiness.) The letter of recommendation is a task big enough to require a division of labor, and referees can make it clear that the student is well-served to assume as much of that labor as possible. Faculty can also check with the office for career services to see if students have access to a dossier service, which allows a professor to submit a single letter for the student’s file, and assumes responsibility for the tasks of signatures, envelopes, and due dates.

Despite the secular bent of the academic field, a professor’s state of grace is more closely akin to the doctrine of Christianity than that of Neo-Platonism or Stoicism. In Foucault 2.0, Eric Paras describes how “the pedagogical dramatics of progressive illumination” of Stoicism were gradually displaced by the perpetual fear of temptation of Christianity, and how that fear must constantly be kept at bay. Likewise, an academic’s reputation is rarely steadfast, and is maintained by speaking engagements, annual conference papers, regular articles or reviews, and credible letters of recommendation. Even tenured professors seek to maintain status and good relations with their peers, for many academic fields are incredibly close-knit. A professor may have professional and social ties with the letter’s recipients and, in the act of refereeing, will have his reputation in mind as well as his livelihood. We understand that if a professor were to offer glowing recommendations of students who fail one after another at Yale, for example, he has effectively set fire to a bridge of good faith that may have led to publishing, speaking, or job opportunities.

Why, then, do we not speak plainly about these networks and relations? Is the academy so captive to middle-class niceties that pedagogues must mask the market relations of higher education in the camera obscura of capitalist ideology? The exchange value of the letter of recommendation is but one determinant of many. The conversion between symbolic and economic capital is rarely guaranteed, and the exchange rate is nearly impossible to predict. In turn, reciprocity is the predominant force shaping this tie between professor and student within the academic network. When a student solicits a recommendation letter, he indicates to his professor that he values the time she has dedicated to his mentoring. By submitting that letter, the professor indicates that she imagines the student will, during his graduate studies, be a valuable addition to the department. A student bound for graduate school is likely not in it for the big bucks, and the professor is well-served by affirming their roles as homo communitas, rather than homo economicus. Her students will have plenty of opportunities to be reduced to commodities of labor soon enough -- armed again, of course, with more letters of recommendation.


Randal Doane taught sociology at New York University, Queens College and Case Western Reserve University. Now that he is an assistant dean of studies at Oberlin College, he is called upon less and less to write letters of recommendation.


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