Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Decoding those letters of recommendation

It's that time of year again. Students looking to score scholarships or admittance to grad school ask profs for letters of recommendation. It's a chore we do willingly but under some stress. One semester I wrote more than 25 of the things. Exhausting.

Sometimes, thank god, there's simply a form to fill out with questions such as "How well do you think this student will cope with the challenges of living in an unfamiliar environment?" (That one's for the study-abroad program and means "Will she have a nervous breakdown when she finds out the dorms aren't air-conditioned?") Or "In your opinion, what are the student's primary weaknesses?" Hmmm, knuckle-cracking during my lectures? The ability to sleep sitting up? (Perhaps that actually falls under the heading of "Special talents.")

I always tell students that when they need a letter of rec to ask profs (well in advance) if they would be willing to write a positive letter. This accomplishes two things: It gives the prof a diplomatic out ("I think you might benefit more from asking another professor to write it"--meaning, I can't think of that many nice things to write about you); and if the prof says yes, the student is assured of a letter that will actually help get the scholarship/grad school admittance.

Few profs will turn down a blanket request outright. We simply write the non-committal sort of letter that the receiver can easily decode. "This student was enrolled in my class last fall" means "I barely remember him and he didn't do all that well." Whereas, "This student earned top grades and showed extraordinary academic achievement in my class...etc." If a teacher writes "This student certainly would benefit from a scholarship," it might mean "She's not only financially strapped but really needs some impetus for making more than C's and D's in the basic courses."

"She is intellectually curious" is code for "she asks a lot of questions." "He shows great potential" might mean "He's not as dumb as he looks." Using the word "academic honesty" in the letter lets the receiver know the kid isn't one of the serial plagiarizer/fabricators.

It's hard to come up with adjectives for these things. And we really do want to help most students by writing a letter that will convince the committee to make a favorable decision.

Remember, ask if the prof is willing to write a positive letter. If you don't, you might end up being described only as "capable, friendly and studious." That translates to "barely a face in the crowd."

OK, fellow instructors, tell me your strategies for writing letters of recommendation--good, bland or indifferent.


Anonymous andrea said...

I don't write letters for people I don't think I can write an absolutely stellar letter of recommendation for. Since I am their employer rather that teacher, it's easier to pass them off to the profs in those cases.

Generally, the people I write recommendations for are those who have worked for me for more than two semesters. I don't know how the professors do it, who sometimes only know these students for four or five months.

I also try to make the recommendation as well-rounded as I can. Because I see these students 8-20 hours a week, I tend to know a lot about their lives outside of work. I start out with their work-related achievements and highlight things that stand out. (If they sit at the front desk and check their email all day, I probably won't be writing their recommendation anyway.) Then I move onto their academic record - usually I know if they are an A student, B student, C student and why. Afterwards, I'll mention any extracurriculars that set them apart or special skills, and wrap it all up with more work-related comments.

I know that my recommendations have gotten results in the past, so I'm going to keep using this formula =)

Everyone is unique, and the secret is to capitalize on that particular student's qualities that set them apart. Can they manage full-time school, part-time work, church and a social life to boot? Write it. Do they speak six languages? Hightlight that. And if you can't find anything unique about them, then maybe you're not the best person to write that rec.

11:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Prof told me this a while back, and I still remember it to this day. it's actually funny because TODAY I inserted "positive" into the email during my final read through of the request I wrote to a Prof. I had ALMOST forgotten to put it in :)

12:31 AM  
Blogger Terminaldegree said...

I tell students (for whom I agree to write recs) that I will write the letter ONLY if I get the following by e-mail:

1. the student's resume (so I get a better sense of what else they have done)

2. a letter explaining what the rec is for, why they qualify, and which of their strengths they'd like me to focus on

3. a reminder of when they were in my classes or any other things that will help me to write a glowing letter (such as "Dear Prof: I served as your assistant during the 2005-2006 academic year, and during that time I reorganized your files, planned a conference, etc...").

This lets me essentially re-write whatever they've given me. They get a nice letter, and my job is easier.

In addition, it makes my shy students actually talk about their good points, and that's good for them!

12:31 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have a standard form they fill out with those kinds of things. They also sign it, so it serves as a release.

I think the "positive" thing is realy good advise. I had one student who was a pretty good student, but I knew from extra-curricular activities was the most selfish and mean person I've ever worked with. One of the forms asked for his greatest weakness. I told them. He didn't get it.

For a more normal student, I would have refused to write the letter. In this case, had I refused the letter, this student would have used his connections to the president of the college to kill the extracurricular program's funding for this year. That is how he was and still is.

Sometimes students get what they deserve, even when they don't realize that they've gotten it.

7:43 AM  
Blogger Jess said...

As a university administrator who organizes files for various job and fellowship searches, I've seen everything from the equivalency of a scrawled paper napkin to professors who use percentages and formulas to rank the students they're recommending. It gets interesting when the same high profile professor writes letters for two or more candidates for the same job - you can tell a lot more about their unspoken opinion when you compare what they write about one student over another.

One candidate I remember pretty clearly sent TWELVE recommendations when we asked for three. None of them were more than a half a page, and extremely non-committal. It was as if the student shoved a recommendation form in front of anyone he ever took a class from.

So from the staff end of the job search process - pick your recommenders carefully, and only include the ones you feel will be most comprehensive in your applications. I know most people don't see the letters before they get sent out, but you should be able to tell by your relationship with the person who is writing it whether or not it will be a good one. Why send twelve crappy letters if you've got three good ones?

Something important to remember is also that all those "tricks" you've been taught about how to make an application stand out, like fancy paper and special folders, only serve to piss off the person doing the filing. Make sure your stuff is clear, complete, and just use paper clips. If the content is there, you don't need all that extra frou frou.

Chances are someone like me will have to take your file apart and photocopy it, then put it back together, so don't make it a pain and we won't "accidentally" drop it behind a radiator or "spill" coffee all over it.


No, I'm kidding.

Well, maybe only a little.

9:40 AM  
Anonymous schwa said...

Doesn't "letter of recommendation", by definition, imply that it should be positive? I realise that letter-writing has become a complicated social ritual on a par with getting married, and that this is driven by the sheer quantity of the damn things one must deal with, but the casual way in which half-arsed fill-in-the-blank recommendations are accepted as a fact of life in U.S. academia has always baffled and irritated me.

9:48 AM  
Anonymous lucille said...

I ask students to send a resume, draft of their statement of purpose, and photocopy of at least one long paper they wrote for me. If they can't get these things together, they're not serious enough for me to write for. I also have a note on my syllabus saying something like, "if you want to ask me for a recommendation for graduate study, please be sure to get an A or A- in my class (in more than one class with me if it's for graduate study in English)." I tell my advisees to look for any sign of hesitation in a prof. and back away if they see it, and to accept "I'm not sure I know you well enough" graciously and not protest that they do, indeed, because that's code for "I'll write you a lukewarm rec."

A similar genre: the narrative evaluation in a pricey, tuition-driven school. We couldn't write anything negative without incurring the wrath of wealthy parents, whose dollars ran the school. So my favorite code phrase was "Stacey has not yet committed to her considerable intelligence." Code for: OK, she MIGHT be a genius like she and her parents keep insisting, but she's acting like a dumb-ass."

11:04 AM  
Blogger Chris said...

I see letters of recommendation from the other side... as an employer. Quite frankly, most academic letters of recommendation are so bland that I don't get any feel for the candidate from them. I much prefer a phone interview with the professor, where I can ask specific questions and follow up on areas where the professor dances around the subject.

1:35 PM  
Blogger Red River said...

A word from the work world - We follow up on all references and letters - some are forgeries - as are educational claims on resumes.

Sometimes we bring these people in for "interviews" - if any of the staff knew the recommenders or attended the schools' departments. Its hilarious to watch them squirm before we confront them.

Literateness - meaning the ability to read, listen, and assemble material, and then apply it - is sorely lacking in most graduates.

The polished, literate, eloquent and prepared candidate does not need the glowing letters because they are obviously on the ball and get hired immediately.

2:58 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm sorry, I don't quite get 'literateness'. Do you mean literacy, or competence? Is this an Americanism I've not encountered?

2:36 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I had a student, let's call him Greg, for two consecutive semesters. I was a very new professor, and even though this job was at a community college I did not put a strict attendance policy into place (naive of me - I know) . Assuming (again, naive) that anyone studying this particular field MUST be committed enough to show up for class. Not so. When I taught my second semester there was an insanely strict attendance policy in place.

One of the students I had my first semester was CONSISTENTLY late to class. 15-25 minutes late for over half of the classes. In this particular class there were several group projects, so this student was not only hurting himself - he was hurting his group partner(s). I warned him several times one on one. Finally, when he walked in late for the umpteenth time I laid into him in front of the class. I didn't yell, I just called him out for his disrespect of the class and his project partners.

He came up to me after class, very angry, and said that he didn't appreciate me embarassing him in front of the class. I then reminded him of all the times I had quietly, but firmly, explained to him that the lateness had to stop. I told him that clearly the one on one confrontations hadn't worked, and I told him that I hoped being embarassed MIGHT do the trick. He listened and walked away. The next day he came up to me and apologized and asked me what I thought he should improve. I gave him the laundry list - with very encouraging words. I told him to turn over a new leaf, etc.

He barely passed that semester, but he DID pass because he got A's on all his tests. (I also re-vamped my grading system the next semester!) AND he was in ANOTHER class with me the following semester. He DID turn over a new leaf - toward the middle of that second semester. The kid who said he was dyslexic and couldn't memorize a short presentation in the first semester SUDDENLY memorized 5 PAGE LONG presentations. Uhhhhh. . . (I am not denying this is true, I have a family member who is dyslexic, and he has trouble with memorization as well.) I find it vbery suspicious that the same kid who "worked on" a paragraph of memorization for a MONTH and couldn't get it SUDDENLY could memorize 5 pages in a WEEK.

He was also on time - and pointed it out to me EVERY DAY WE HAD CLASS. His grades on tests fell a little bit, but his group project partners were sure happy he showed up. Here's the thing - I knew him for 2 semesters, of which he "turned over a new leaf" for approximately 1/2 of a semester. AND he wouldn't quit reminding me and all his classmates about how "good" he was being.

Then he decided (coming out of two years of community college) that he wanted to go to _____________ (a-list) University to continue his studies and asked ME to write him a letter of recommendation. I politely tried to decline, saying "I don't know you well enough". He told me to be honest and PLEASE write the letter.

I did. And I explained it (much more professionally) in the way I have explained it to you. It all boiled down to, "He was a royal f&%k up for a semester and a half but has turned around, but I (and I think HE) am not convinced yet." I don't know if he got in. But if he didn't I am sure it wasn't JUST my LOR that kept him out. It was probably his GPA and the fact that he was a h.s. C student before going to community college.

7:18 AM  
Blogger Kevin said...

Fully realizing the subject here is grad school and employment LOR's, and that those are far more important than what I'm writing about ... I'm still compelled to add our experience as parents of a high school senior, needing LOR's for her college apps.

Early last fall, I wrangled with daughter's so-called counselor for 3 weeks over an issue (transferring into another class) that she continually stonewalled and lied to me about. I finally sent an email to her boss and the issue was resolved in less than half a day. The woman actually sent me an email after that, telling me she was pissed at me for 'telling' on her.

Fine by me. If she'd been doing her job, I wouldn't have had to go to her boss.

Fast forward to college app time. One of the schools required an LOR from the student's counselor, as well as two teachers. (A private TX university.)

No problem with the teachers. They sent the letters with grace and ease. Counselor sent home a two-page questionnaire for us to fill out, so that she could craft the appropriate LOR. (She doesn't know jack about our daughter because she spends all her time with the kids who are failing, skipping school, or causing problems.) Daughter turned in our response on a timely basis, along with stamped, addressed envelope to the college, and clear instructions to the counselor that it needed to be postmarked by December 15. Counselor assured her, in front of other students, that she absolutely would do it on time, and that this was always one of her top priorities.

Now it's mid-January. No word from the college yet, but her classmate (who has a different counselor by virtue of being at the other end of the alphabet) was notified of her acceptance. I call the college to see what's up. They tell me her app is "incomplete". It lacks the counselor's LOR.

Counselor is confronted, claims it's either the office or our daughter's fault, because she says the box was checked to "send transcripts only". Bullshit. What did she think my 3-page typed response to her questionnaire, and the stamped, addressed envelope were for?

Anyway ... daughter is accepted into the college, but missed the deadline to be considered for academic scholarships because the counselor didn't turn in the letter by deadline.

It stinks to realize that a public high school counselor who's never spent more than 10 minutes with your child in 4 years, can wield such power over her future, just because she's mad at Mama for reporting her to her boss.

At least none of the other schools she applied to required letters from counselors. She's been accepted to all the others she applied to, and offered academic scholarships.

Because the TEACHERS did their job.

I salute all of you who toil in the education field, day after endless day. Especially here in Texas. I don't know how you do it, but I'm very grateful that you do.

9:37 AM  
Anonymous highschool07 said...

Oh my gosh, thanks for that tip. I will use it next year! 007!!

7:08 PM  
Blogger PerpetualBeginner said...

I've only ever had to fill out one recommendation, which was an interesting experience. I was having to work hard to figure out how to fill out the form in a way that said "bright, sometimes brilliant, hard worker, perky, annoying as hell."

I've never had any problem getting good recommendations. The best one I've ever had still makes me feel slightly guilty though. I asked my boss for a recommendation to be sent in sealed without my seeing it. She did, but then gave me a copy - turned out to be the most glowing document I've ever read about anybody. I kept wondering "who is this paragon she's talking about, because it sure isn't me!"

Then I talked to another researcher in our department. Turns out my boss had given a prior assisstant a less than stellar recommendation, and been stalked and threatened when they found out. So now she gives glowing letters to anyone who asks for one. Sigh. I would have asked someone else if I'd known.

8:15 AM  
Blogger theprofessor said...

These are excellent! Thank you, one and all. Especially Lucille. Your advice and wisdom about the LOR matter should be read by every student who needs admittance to college, grad school, law school or a new job. Thanks, ya'll.

10:54 AM  
Anonymous Heels said...

I stopped teaching as an adjunct prof a couple of years ago and I was shocked when a police department in Tennessee started calling places where I'd worked looking for me. An old employer finally called me to give me a heads-up, so I called the TN PD and I will be damned if a former student hadn't listed me as a character reference.

I have absolutely no recollection of the student at all.

4:35 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm not a professor, but I work in an academic environment and supervise graduate students. Before I'll write a letter, I ask for a current copy of their resume or vita and a copy of the job description. I also ask that they ask each time before they list me as a reference.

Because I'm in a work environment, in situations where the student is not performing to par, I also make a point of warning the student that this will effect my ability to serve as a reference for them.

When we hire tenure track people here, letters from professors don't carry a lot of weight. The exceptions tend to be in cases where the professor has extensive experience with the applicant.

12:54 PM  
Anonymous Learned Hand said...

The best advice I can give from the student’s perspective is that one must work the system. I learned this the hard way when applying for law schools. I needed one letter of recommendation for most schools, and two letters for a few others. A famous lawyer who had taught one of my undergraduate seminars wrote my primary letter. She had a policy of showing all her letters to her students before mailing them. That letter was incandescent.

For my secondary letter I turned to a professor who had taught two classes that I attended simultaneously. I was his star pupil in both classes. I got A’s or A+’s in both classes. We saw each other socially on occasion. I had even loaned him a washer and dryer for a period of about two years.

I originally planed on applying to more schools than I finally decided on. At that point I had some extra sealed recommendation letters from washing machine man. I decided to open one of them to see what he had written. Not only was his writing style very poor, his letter was at best tepid and showed very little sign that he knew who I was. It did contain at least one sentence that was outright critical. At that point it was far too late to actually solicit another professor for a LOR.

Suffice it to say, his letter only went to those institutions that required two letters. If I had it to do again, I would seek out letters from more professors than required with the intent of asking for extra letters from them in order to cherry pick both the letters that were most complimentary, but that looked like they were written by someone who had graduated college, much less taught it.

Part of my point is that the letter writers have had plenty of opportunities to judge our work. We have not had opportunity to judge their written work. Washing machine man was fine as a professor. He introduced me to the political philosopher who has had the biggest impact on my thinking. He was somewhat disorganized at times, but I attributed that to the fact that he was a new associate professor. The only sample I have of his written work indicates to me that his disorganization extended to his thinking.

Putting aside my outrage at the impersonal and tepid tone of the letter, I can’t imagine that a poorly written letter would look very impressive to the people who are judging me in part by judging the letter of recommendation.

10:53 PM  
Blogger Rosie said...

In my experience handling admissions (not in the US) we issued standard questionnaire forms, with 5 grades from 5 (Very Good) to 1 (Very Poor) for each question. Candidates asked their referees to fill these out, then posted them in - we didn't ask that they be sealed, so candidates and their referees could discuss the reasons behind their grading.
One unsuccessful candidate called up, distraught, to explain that one of his referees informed him that a questionnaire marked with 5s all the way through would be disbelieved, thought untrustworthy, by the College. Therefore he deliberately downgraded the scores to include 3s and 4s. How infuriating! The candidate was genuinely astonished to hear that no, actually the scores are entered into spreadsheets and counted up, with no judgements made about whether or not the referee was exaggerating the candidate's prowess. One simple mistake that held him back an entire year. If only he'd thought to call College Admissions and double-check with us.

10:46 AM  
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6:03 PM  

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