Writing Better Recommendations

So much of our daily to-do lists seem to be tasks for which we have little-to-no training, few direct guidelines, and practically no oversight (at least until mid-tenure review). I’ve just sent off several letters of recommendation for students hoping for REUs or transfers, and even though I’ve written a few of these over the years, I still feel like I have no idea what I’m doing. I’ve gotten pretty comfortable with that feeling in my day-to-day life, but usually it’s only my career I’m potentially damaging with a mistake. The thought that I could screw up the future of one of my bright young students with a careless letter is worrying, to say the least.

So I started researching. I still haven’t implemented some of the suggestions in the links below, but I will in the future. I hope this will be helpful for those of you who are in the same boat. For everyone else who already knows the drill, I hope you will chime in with your advice in the comments.

First, PhD+’s creator Adriana Salerno has some great tips. She says to be specific, and give examples of your interactions with the student. She also talks about the difficulties of addressing a student’s weaknesses when asked to do so, which mercifully I haven’t had to do yet. The comments are also extremely helpful, one giving a nice breakdown of how to structure a letter.

Another problem with letter-writing is how to get the right kind of information from the student in the most efficient way. Michael Orrison at Harvey Mudd wrote a nice piece for the MAA where he lays out his process. He has a separate page on his site directing students to send him not just the relevant practical details (due dates, envelopes/links, etc), but also more specialized information to help him write a great letter. The students answer questions like “For what classes have I had you, what final grades did I assign you, and how did you distinguish yourself in my classes?” and “What are your long-term goals and will this position/honor/award help? If so, how?” No matter how well you think you know a student, their answers to these questions can’t help but improve your letter. He also specifically requests that students send email reminders when deadlines approach. I think some students are nervous about appearing to nag, but I would welcome a quick heads-up to make sure I don’t forget due dates.

One more subtle concern is the effect of biases hidden in my letters. This handy reference from The University of Arizona Commission on the Status of Women is directed specifically at gender bias in recommendations, but it can also help us examine other lurking biases with a more critical eye. There are general suggestions (“Keep It Professional: Letters of reference for women are 7x more likely to mention personal life – something that is almost always irrelevant for the application”) as well as a list of words to use and others to consider avoiding. We all have biases – I’m growing more and more aware of mine – and the best we can do is to recognize them and confront them whenever we can.

The hardest thing for me to learn was how to diplomatically decline to write a letter. If the student seemed to lack both aptitude and drive in my courses, I won’t waste my time (or those of the eventual recipient) trying to find a positive spin, no matter how much I might like them. In one memorable case, my attempts to gently turn such a student away were too subtle for them to catch. Rather than deal with that again, I now say that I just didn’t get a good enough sense of their abilities in class, and because of that I probably wouldn’t be able to write an effective letter. So far, so good.

One last requirement, adopted from a colleague, is to mandate that the student update me when they hear the results of their application, good or bad. It’s harder for people to disappear at a school as small as Hood, but at previous institutions I would occasionally write a bang-up recommendation for a student, only to never see or hear from them again. I don’t think students intentionally neglect to tell us the results, but they seem to respond to making this expectation clear.

What are your recommendation tips? Especially those of you on the other side – what works? What doesn’t?


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