To Whom It May Concern: Writing Letters of Recommendation

Steve Volk, September 25, 2017

“Hey, Professor,” the email began. (What’s with the omnipresent “Hey.” Even on “Morning Edition,” it’s “Hey, Rachel” and “Hey, David.” OK, stay focused!) “Hey, Professor. I’ve been thinking a lot about next year and have decided to go back to school. I understand if you don’t have time, but I’d be hugely grateful if you’d write me a letter of recommendation.”

We’re rapidly moving into the recommendation-writing season. If you’re new to your position, you’ll only get a few entreaties. After you’ve grown old at your post, the requests can multiply into dozens or scores. And take it from someone who has put in some time here: the requests don’t stop after a student has graduated. (Two requests materialized in my inbox this morning; I’m still asked for letters from students who graduated in the 1990s.)

We all know that we’re not evaluated on the number of letters we write, and certainly not on their quality or impact. Feel free to put those metrics in your tenure file, but you can be confident in the knowledge that the peer reviewed articles you could have written in the same time will “count” more.

And yet I’m not alone in arguing that the letters of recommendation we write are among the most important of our tasks as teachers, that the time we put into them can be vital. They are about our students’ future.  Now, an enthusiastic letter will likely not win an unqualified student a fellowship – nor should it – but a poorly written or meh letter can damage the prospects of a highly qualified student to get into the program that can make a huge difference in her future. These letters, then, can be critically important.

So, here are a few things to keep in mind when writing letters of recommendation.

Getting to No

The first thing to consider is actually whether you can or should be writing for the student who has requested your support. There are bundles of reasons why we need to make every possible effort to aid those students who deserve our support. But there are also reasons to respond, “I’m so sorry, but I can’t.”

  • At the end of the day, we’re only human. If you are utterly overwhelmed with work, personal issues, or both, haven’t had time for a shower in 2 weeks and you’ve forgotten what your kids look like, it’s better to say no than to write a letter that will be lukewarm or sound insincere. Better to be honest with the requester and say that, at this moment, someone else could do a better job.
  • When students demand that you drop everything and post a letter — deadline TOMORROW — on their behalf, it probably doesn’t say a lot about their ability to plan ahead and isn’t considerate of your time. “Sorry, next time you need to ask sooner.”

Saying “no” in certain cases can be the best approach for the applicant as well:

  • If you think you shouldn’t write a letter for a student because she isn’t qualified or deserving, the best approach is to sit down with her (if still on campus, or by email if not) and say why you don’t think you can write a letter. It’s not easy to say these things, but it is much better for the student to know than for you to write a letter that would seriously damage her chances while she was left thinking that you were writing in her support. Further, if it’s your reasoned belief that the student won’t likely succeed in an intended field, he should know. A note of caution: Try to be aware of any implicit biases that might be behind your assessment – at least ask yourself some questions in that regard – but at the end of the day, you are the one being asked to write and if you don’t think you can write a strong letter, you need to say so and inform the student as to why you’re declining the request. The purpose of writing a letter of recommendation is to help students get what they are applying for, not to undermine them.
  • In very high-stakes competitions (e.g. national fellowships, etc.), it is no favor to the applicant to write a letter on their behalf when you don’t know them well and can’t speak fully about their work. I can’t write a strong letter filled with the needed evidence of excellence for a student who was in a 50-person survey three years before. Sometimes I’ll invite students to return if they haven’t been able to find someone else who knows them better to agree to write for them. But at least the student will know that the letter I write will be limited.

NOTE TO ADVISERS AND FIRST YEAR SEMINAR INSTRUCTORS: It’s never too soon to let students in on the fact that, some day, they want their instructors to write recommendation for them. They need to be cultivating relationships with the faculty that will facilitate this. This is particularly important for first-generation or under-represented students who may not be familiar with ways of leveraging their undergraduate education toward their future success.

  • Finally, and returning to the “we’re only human” theme: Let’s face it:  for whatever reason, there are some students who have rubbed us the wrong way. They can be smart, accomplished, and probably deserving of our support. But if you feel that you can’t let go of whatever it was about that student that pissed you off, better to say no than to sabotage their chances of success.

Getting to Yes

Not all requests are the same, and you should take the “ask” into consideration to try to get to yes.

  • Low-stakes recommendations (e.g., for study-abroad program, non-technical summer internships, etc.) can be written relatively quickly. These letters mostly should stress that the student is responsible, mature, works well in a group setting, can be expected to take initiative, etc. If you can say any of these things, just say yes.
  • Medium-to-high stakes recommendations (e.g., for graduate or professional schools, service programs such as Americorps, some on-campus jobs such as in the Admissions office, etc.), will require more of your time, and your decision can be determined by the kind of program to which the student is applying. I would write a strong letter for students applying to an MA programs even if I couldn’t support them for top-of-the-line PhD programs. Competition to get into good doctoral programs (particularly those which carry full financial support), law schools, or med schools is intense. Letters for these programs will take more time to write and imply that you expect the student to succeed if accepted. As suggested in the previous section, if you’re disposed to write for a student but have doubts or questions, discuss them with the student or consider talking with a colleague in your department who might also know the student.
  • Very high-stakes recommendations (for major national or international scholarships or fellowships, for former students who are applying for academic positions or graduate fellowships, etc.) can take a serious amount of time and require not just whole-hearted and sincere support, but evidence of a special knowledge of that student. Particularly in writing for the most competitive fellowships, you need to be able to say, and provide evidence to back it up, that the applicant is exceptional. Faculty who are writing for students applying to these fellowships should get advice from the faculty advisers for those programs or the Fellowships and Awards office.

Getting Ready to Write

Make sure you have what you need before sitting down to write, particularly if you’re working on a tight schedule. Among the important information to have:

  • Undergraduate transcript (which, at Oberlin, you can usually access via PRESTO);
  • Statement of purpose or at least a late draft of the essay/s they will write for their applications. If the student is applying to a variety of different programs, make sure you have statements for each area so you can craft their letters accordingly;
  • Resume, particularly if the student has already graduated;
  • Application details: names of the schools, programs, departments, or fields within the discipline to which they are applying; deadlines; format: online or (increasingly rare) hard copy, etc.
  • Copies of papers or other work completed in your classes. Many of us keep electronic copies of students’ work, but if you don’t have this, ask for it.
  • For very high-stakes competitions, I’ve found it useful to sit down with the applicant and go over goals, intentions, prospects for the future whether they are successful in the application or not.
  • Ask the applicant if there are any aspects of their work with you that they would like you to stress in the letter of recommendation.

Writing a Good Letter 

Gear your letter to the specific school, program, fellowship, etc., to which the student is applying. Generic letters or letters written without regard to the specific fellowship, course of study, or project proposed could hurt, and certainly don’t benefit, the applicant’s chances. You can use the same letter if a student applies to many different schools; just try to gear them to the specific school or program in question.

  • Provide some context of how long and in what capacity you have known the applicant.
  • Show that you know the applicant personally: The strongest letters are filled with specific examples that highlight the qualities the student possesses: Cite evidence from the brilliant papers they have written, how they took responsibility for class discussions, interactions with peers and faculty, how they overcame adversity, evidence of leadership, etc., particularly as these points relate to the goals of the fellowship or the proposed course of study.
  • For graduate school, address the applicant’s knowledge of the field of study: depth and breadth of knowledge, skills, methodology, research, languages where applicable, etc.
  • Communication skills: Is the applicant an effective writer? Does the written work submitted demonstrate a mastery of disciplinary conventions? Is the written material clear, well-organized and forceful? Is the applicant an articulate, clear, and effective speaker? Does the applicant have other communications skills, particularly as pertains to technology-related communication.
  • Personal dispositions: Industriousness, discipline, persistence, ability to reflect on mistakes, to take criticism, to work independently, empathy, commitment, maturity ability to adjust to adverse circumstances, etc. Does the applicant enjoy the trust and respect of fellow students and the faculty?
  • How does the applicant exemplify the personal qualities or selection criteria specified by the fellowship or graduate program? Specific examples are crucial.
  • Place the student in a larger context. Compare the present applicant to others who have applied for similar honors in the past or who have succeeded in such competitions, to others who have gone on to graduate or professional programs. She is “among the three best students I have taught,” “in top 5% of students in my 20 years of teaching,” etc.

What Can Hurt? 

Letters that do no more than summarize information available elsewhere in the application; that provide more information about the letter writer than the applicant; that consist nothing but unsupported praise; that damn with faint praise (it is not helpful to say that a student did what might be expected of all students: completed the reading assignments, came to class on time, etc.); that may be read as implying veiled criticism or whose criticisms might be taken to indicate stronger reservations than have been stated elsewhere.

Letters should be honest—and honest criticism, if generously presented, can enhance the force of a letter—but committees take critical comments very seriously. It is best to be cautious when making critical remarks, particularly when you have an overall positive regard for the applicant.

Does Size Matter?

Yes. Most high-stakes recommendation letters should be around 2-pages long; only the most important should be longer (i.e., if you really have something exceptional to say). A 2-3 paragraph letter is sufficient for very low-stakes recommendations, but can do more harm than good for very competitive application processes.

Some No-no’s: 

  • Asking students to write their own recommendations for you to sign: sorry, just plain unprofessional. Better to say no.
  • Taking a recommendation that you wrote for one student and using it for another. When you have written enough recommendations, they will tend to develop a bit of a “boiler-plate” feel to them. That’s probably unavoidable. But using the same letter for different students, particularly in very important applications, can be damaging, especially if those reading the letter find them very familiar sounding.
  • When writing a batch of letters for the same student or when reviving a recommendation written sometime earlier for a new request, always double check that you have addressed the letter to the proper program, the proper school, etc. Make sure that you don’t write a letter recommending your student for a public health program when that particular recommendation is supposed to be for graduate school in epidemiology.

Finally: Faculty advisers in specific professional fields (health-related, law, business), specific graduate programs, the fellowships and awards office, and the Career Development Center, among others, can provide much more specific and useful information as to what can help in writing certain kinds of letters of recommendation. Consult with them and take their advice!

Late addition (9/24 at 7:39 PM): Erik Inglis reminded me of Julie Schumacher’s (OC ’81) epistolary novel, Dear Committee Members (Doubleday, 2014), “composed of a year’s worth of recommendations that our anti-hero — a weary professor of creative writing and literature — is called upon to write for junior colleagues, lackluster students and even former lovers,” as Maureen Corrigan writes for an NPR review. Maybe you’ll get further tips there!

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