I mentioned this topic in A Letter to College Students (from all profs) in which I was providing some advice to students about how to ask for letters of recommendation. But given recent interactions with fellow faculty about the subject, I think some advice should also be given to faculty members who agree to write such letters.
Letters of recommendation (LoR) suck. It sucks to read them and it sucks to write them. Almost all schools, programs, and employers require 2-4 LoR for admission/acceptance/employment. And they should. LoR are often deciding factors between candidates. They offer insight into an applicant’s temperament, working style, manageability, and potential for professional growth. They are meant to be an opportunity for someone close to the candidate to explicate how and why he/she should be afforded this new experience instead of the 200 other applicants.
Toward that end, I believe recommendation writers bear a heavy burden that is not always treated with respect by the writer. My colleagues talk about having students write their own letters, copying and pasting large portions of past letters, or even finding templates online and filling in the blanks. I know people are busy and LoR are an added task to an overloaded schedule, but the fact of the matter is that LoR are an integral part of our business model. And let’s not forget that at some point, someone wrote LoR for you. They may have been the aspect of your application that tipped the scales in your favor. So now it is your turn to pay it forward.
Here are some general guidelines I’ve compiled from my experiences as an anxious applicant reading my many LoR, as someone on admissions and hiring committees, and now as a full time professor writing at least a dozen of these a year:
1) Decide if you can write a good letter for the applicant. Consider your schedule, nature and quality of the relationship, and how well you know the applicant. If you find you can’t for the life of you think of what you would write in a LoR, perhaps you should decline. Which brings me to…
2) It’s okay to say ‘no’. I encourage people to develop a policy for writing recommendations that includes requirements for academic performance, a timeframe, or whatever else you need to feel comfortable writing. Make sure your policy is truthful and instituted consistently. If you say you need three weeks to write, don’t decline one person because they asked 10 days before the due date, but agree to write one for another person who did the same. People talk. You don’t want to develop a bad reputation. Remember—students evaluate us too.
3) Request as much information as possible before you begin writing. This includes a resume/CV, personal statement/essays, answers to application questions, transcripts, and of course a description of the school/program/job to which they are applying. These materials are useful complements to more personal narratives.
4) Do research. If you agree to write the letter and they don’t send you the requested material, take 3 minutes and google the school/program/job. I am not suggesting you do all of the leg work, but information about even the location of the job could help you craft your letter. If that seems like too much work, just revisit their performance in your course and ask colleagues for their input. Some information is better than nothing.
5) Set aside time. A good LoR, like a good paper, is well researched, requires planning, and takes revision. If you can write a letter in less than an hour, it may not be your best work. If the letter is only two paragraphs double spaced, you may not be going into enough detail. After all, don’t you expect students to be thoughtful and thorough in their writing? We should do no less.
6) Be specific. This may be the most important piece of advice. Reading vague LoR filled with generalized claims of awesomeness may be the most annoying part of being on a search committee. Provide specific examples to support your statements. Try to paint a picture so that readers get a true sense of who the applicant is in ‘real life’.
7) Avoid cliché descriptors and platitudes. Words like organized, team worker, creative, passionate, and dedicated are found in almost every LoR. Regardless of how accurate they may be, they come across as empty when you read the same sentence over and over. Instead, think about skills that would be useful in the potential position and see if the applicant possesses them. If not, identify what they do possess and state why that particular skill is beneficial.
8) Organize the letter chronologically or thematically. Have an introduction that identifies the position being applied for, the nature and duration of your relationship with the applicant, and preview what you will discuss. Be sure to close with a clear statement of endorsement for acceptance/hire, and include contact information for questions. This sounds like a no brainer, but many LoR are devoid of the basics (usually a sign that it is a form letter).
9) Be honest. Be original. Be genuine. This means not having people write their own letters. It means not writing the same letter for every person. It definitely means not ‘borrowing’ templates from the internet. Form letters are easily identified and often result in the candidate’s application being set aside. If you don’t even want to write a LoR for them, why would I want to hire them?
10) Follow through. This person has trusted you with an important task. You accepted, so it is your responsibility to do it well and on time. One late or missing component of an application can render a package incomplete and thus not up for consideration.
That’s it. Writing LoR is not the most enjoyable or simple task, but it can certainly be one of the most rewarding. I find it an honorably humbling experience to play a role in helping someone enter the next phase of their life.
Maybe that’s why I’m a teacher.