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.