Thursday, January 12, 2006

Writing Letters of Recommendation

As I was driving along on my trip, I had a lot of time to think. Excessive time, one might say, especially since I couldn't really look at books or anything while driving (having to use reading glasses makes even looking at a map iffy).

The most frequent internet searches to reach my blog thus far seem to be aimed at some combination of "letters of recommendation." They get my previous entry about what students should provide for their letter writers, which you can find here. But from the ways the search terms usually appear, and from the people who seem to read my little bloggobit, I think more people are looking for help writing letters rather than for help preparing materials for letter writers.

Indeed, some other bloggers are talking about writing letters of recommendation lately. Notably, A Ianqui in the Village has asked about writing for students who are less than stellar in a post entitled, "Saying No to Recommendations." The responses are interesting, and mostly very helpful. Most agree that we need to be honest with our students if we can't write them good letters. One of the responses linked another blog, PEA Soup, which I'd never read before, but which asks some ethical questions about writing letters of recommendation. The most difficult question is about the student who is well qualified on paper, but abhorrent in some way (the example PEA soup gives has to do with racism).

My response, like most of the responders to both posts, is to be honest with students about my ability to write a good letter for them. I think I'm less reticent than some, perhaps, about writing letters which don't claim that my particular student not only walks on water, but doesn't get his/her shoelaces wet. But then, maybe I'd feel more pressure about that if I were writing letters for PhD candidates in this dismal job situation?

I generally write letters for students looking for jobs (I also get phone requests for these), scholarship or other undergraduate opportunities (study abroad, education department), and graduate placements (MA/PhD programs, Med and Law school, and others). Here's my take: most of us in this world aren't mind-stoppingly brilliant or wonderful, and yet most of us manage to hold jobs and contribute more or less to our communities. Surely the people reading these letters realize this?

When I was in grad school, and first asked to write letters one of my professors taught me a basic generic letter of recommendation. (Yes, it's problematic to write letters as a teaching assistant, but in my Pretty Darned Good graduate university, most undergraduates saw professors only as smallish dots at the front of a lecture hall, so they tended to ask teaching assistants for letters. Yes, my letter as a teaching assistant wasn't hugely influential, but I COULD talk intelligently about the student in ways those big named professorial dots couldn't).

Now, I'd love some suggestions for making my letters better, or at least easier to write, but the basic genre Lola taught me seems pretty useful.

First, I try to figure out what my audience needs: I think, mostly, employers and graduate admissions folks want to know that the student is smart enough to do whatever it is, communicates well (verbally and in writing), listens, has ideas, and has at least the potential to contribute to whatever community is at stake. In order to "trust" my evaluation, the reader has to know how or why I've come to have my opinion, and then needs some good examples to see that my opinion is well-founded.

So, I start out with an introductory paragraph that tells a little about how I know the student, and for how long. The first sentence usually says something about how pleased I am to write on my student's behalf. That "pleasedness" is somewhat coded, of course. But I don't push that coding with any real skill, I'm afraid. I'm generally "pleased" or "very pleased" to recommend student X to program Y. If I'm not pleased (and for some reason haven't convinced the student that I'm a BAD choice), then I am just writing this letter for student X, rather than recommending student X. (I've written perhaps one of those letters?)

In the introductory paragraph, I introduce the student by first and last name, give information about classes (with semester/dates, if appropriate), advising, and so forth, being as specific as possible.

In the next section (which may be one or two paragraphs), I talk about the student's written work, again, as specifically as possible. This is where my previous advice about getting papers for letter writers helps me tons. I can quickly glance over the paper, get the title, thesis, and my response. I can also remind myself how well the student constructed the argument or whatever. If I've had the student several times, I emphasize the most recent work, and may also talk about the student's growth over the time I've known him/her. I use Ms/Mr X to talk about the student in this section.

In the third section, I talk about the student as a member of the community, in class, in the department or university, and so on. At this point, I generally switch to using the student's first name because I think this reflects the more personal nature of this sort of evaluation. If I don't switch, the letter seems cooler, somehow. Again, if I've known the student for a while, I can talk about his/her growth, his/her interests, and so on. I try to be as specific as I can; it helps a LOT if the student gives me his/her letter of application or statement of purpose, or reminds me about activities s/he's been involved with.

This section is where I deal with apparent problems in the application. For example, a couple years ago I had a rather wonderfully smart student who just didn't apply him/herself much. C had good ideas, was an intelligent, helpful participant in class when s/he was there, and was very capable. I LEARNED from C's work. C was also busy with things in life that had nothing to do with school, and so managed mediocre grades.

A few years after graduating, C decided s/he wanted to go to graduate school, and came to talk to me about a letter of recommendation. I responded honestly that while I thought C had great potential and could certainly do the work of graduate school, his/her grades didn't reflect that very well, and so forth. We talked a good bit about why C wanted to go on, what C wanted to do, and so forth, and I agreed to write the letter. In this section, then, I talked about our conversation, C's grades, C's strengths which I believed could lead to great success, why I thought C was ready to take real advantage of opportunities, and why C would be a wonderful member of a graduate school community. Whether because of or in spite of my letter, C was accepted to the graduate program s/he most wanted, and appears (from recent communications) to be thriving there.

In the final paragraph, I quickly reiterate my recommendation and offer to provide further information if the reader wants it. Here, again, I should probably do more with the code words, but I just don't seem to have them down in a meaningful way.

Were I writing letters for applicants for professorial jobs, I think I'd spend a fair bit of time on teaching right after talking about the written work, but we don't have a PhuD program, so that's a worry I don't have.

So, I'd love to learn other tricks of the trade or suggestions people have for writing better letters. Those of you who read a lot of graduate school apps, what stands out as a good letter of recommendation? What are the code words you look for?

What am I missing?


  1. 'kay, here's my problem. Your second section, where you talk about the student's written work, is crucially missing from my ability to evaluate my student. She happened to take 2 classes that had no writing component, but rather problem sets. The even bigger problem is that the TAs graded the problem sets, not me. So I suppose that I could ask her to give me her homeworks so that I could go over them and see if she was competent, but these aren't the kind of problem sets that ask students for much creativity--rather, they're spitting back what they learned in class. Furthermore, she got a B in the class in my field, so I can't even imagine what good things I'd be able to say about her homeworks.

    This is why it makes it incredibly hard for me to evaluate this student. I've had other students who stood out--either they had really insightful commentary in class, or they came to talk about class topics with me outside of class, but she did none of these things.

    FWIW, she's the first person I've ever turned down.

  2. You've got a tough problem, and I'd probably have turned her down, too. The only question I guess I'd have would be about whether the TA is still around and might be able to help you with the letter? But I'm guessing you'd already thought of that if the TA were around, eh?

    In my field, I at least have enough writing assignments that I can always ask for those. (Not that students always save them, but that's a rant for another time.) I "make" my students bring me copies of papers, their statement of purpose or letter of application, and a few other things when they ask me to write for them. It's what I minimally need to do a good job.

    This suggestion won't help for now, but perhaps will for another time? When I was an undergrad, one of my profs said on the first day or so of class, that anyone who thought they might need a letter of recommendation from him needed to see him right away. I assume he started some sort of file on each? (This was a school where a LOT of people were pre-med/pre-vet, and a class with almost all students aiming for one of those two programs.)

    Again, I think you were right to turn her down, and from what you wrote, I imagine you explained to her so that she'd be able to present her materials better to another professor.

  3. Nice post. Your way of organizing your recommendation letters eerily replicates my own.

    I've taken to referring to the student by first name after a first reference by full name and maybe one "Mr." or "Ms." Using "Mr." or "Ms." any more than that makes me feel too fuddy-duddy (and reminds me of my professors, back in the day).

    When I read letters, I'm sometimes impressed when the letter-writer steps away from the usual accolades to say something like "She/he is the real thing." Giving one's highest recommendation, without reservation, with enthusiasm, also seems noteworthy to me (something I take seriously when I'm writing).