As I take a break from writing and submitting letters of recommendation for various grad school applications, I thought I would share some thoughts on the matter on this week’s blog post.
First of all, I have been surprised with how difficult the whole process of writing a good letter is. Of course, I tend to only write letters for students I think highly of already (and I suspect not accidentally, only those students have asked me for letters). But still, when it comes down to writing, it’s hard to know what to say that is meaningful and that an admissions committee will take seriously. You can’t just say “this student was great and I believe they will do well in your grad program”. The best advice I got on this topic was to supplement the “this student is great” comments with actual examples from your interactions with them. This helps a lot, and I tend to remember plenty about students I really like. It gets a little harder when it’s someone you had several years ago, because you may not remember as much. In that case, I think asking them as much as you can about themselves is helpful. Either way, from every conversation I’ve had about this, it’s clear that the more specific you are, the better.
Some people have told me that it’s also important to include some comments on the student’s weaknesses, and some applications specifically ask for this. This part I always have difficulty with, because I sometimes don’t know what to say. “Works too hard on homework”? “Is too responsible”? Seems like the closest I get is humblebragging about my students… I have tried to think very hard about why this is so difficult for me. It is true that I like these students and see mostly good things in them, but it’s also true that they are not perfect and, like everyone, they have flaws. So why do I refuse to acknowledge them? I think that, because I have convinced many of these students to apply for graduate school, now I feel like I must do everything I can to help them get in. If I say something like “very smart but a little lazy”, or maybe “very hard-working but takes a while to get there”, I feel like I’m setting them up to get rejected. In the letters I’ve been writing these past few weeks I think I am doing my best to sound honest about my opinion of my students, but I worry that the weaknesses I have included may come off humblebraggy or worse sounding than I really mean.
In the end, I think that this advice is important if you’re writing a letter for a student to a place that has no idea who you are. In a few years, I may have a few colleagues that are in the admissions committee for some school, and if they know me they will know that when I say “best student I’ve had in the last five years” I really do mean it. So another way to help your students is to tell them to apply for schools where the professors know who you are, since anything you say will be taken more seriously. I mean, that is how I think I got into graduate school (besides my obvious natural talent, of course). The letters of recommendation submitted for me were the same, but the places that ended up liking me knew the people who were writing me letters. An even better thing is to become a widely know, respected mathematician and then no matter what you write your student will get in (well, as long as it’s a positive letter). So, you know, piece of cake.
It really helped to talk to people and to read online when I was getting started, so I hope this post will help you get started too. Anyway, dear readers, any other advice on how to write a good letter of recommendation? Other tips for making your letter sound honest and for people to take it seriously? Any tips on how to become a famous mathematician? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.
NOTE: If you’re my student and reading this, don’t worry, I didn’t call you “smart but lazy” in my letter.
A gambit you didn’t mention, but I particularly appreciate when reading recs, is a comparison with a worthy group. “Best student I’ve ever seen at the University of West Nowhere” is not very useful. “Compared to my fellow students in Austin, I’d put her in the top third” is much moreso. (Once I saw “the best student I’ve seen in my 15 years at Harvard”, but I don’t expect to see that again!)
I think the secret for letters supporting a graduate application is “short and sweet”. Imagine you are as busy as you are. Now imagine you have several hundred graduate applications to read over a relatively short time during term. Say there are 300 applications, and you want to dedicate 10 minutes to each one (this still will involve a lot of skimming). That’s 50 hours of reading applications! If you only have 3 or 4 weeks to evaluate the files that turns into an impossible amount of time what with teaching, office hours, other committee duties, and, oh yeah, doing math! The real number of minutes per file is probably more like 5 minutes (of course different people read files differently). All of a sudden carefully written examples of instructor/student interaction fall below the radar, and only the first and last paragraph (or perhaps sentance!) become the only thing read. Make those sentances count. Or better yet, write two paragraph letters that appear on one page, and hope that this means the whole thing will be read.
Here’s a quick list of what I put in my letters for aspiring graduate students: 1. How I know the student. 2. A description of the class(es) they took from me, and how they did relative to the rest of the class (usually a rank). 3. My impression as to how successful I think they will be in grad school (with some comparator like incoming students at Oregon, or my peers at Texas) and 4. Some remark as to how I think they will enhance a department (“likely to be a good teacher”, “friendly and outgoing”, etc).