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It is the time of year again when I am writing letters of recommendations for both upper classmen and for earlier years, for graduate and professional schools, or for internships, study abroad programs or REUs (Research Experiences for Undergraduates, a program funded by the NSF).  I thought it might be of use for those around here who are asking for letters and who might be writing them to discuss what each side wants and expects in this interaction.  I wrote about this more than six years ago, but have been thinking about it over the break and figured it was an appropriate topic to revisit.

Both a faculty member being asked to write letters and a student asking have obligations in this exchange.  As the transaction starts with the requester (the student), that is where I will start as well. Follow me below the orange loop-de-loop for the first “Teachers’ Lounge” diary for 2014.

Writing letters from college is not like getting a letter from your HR department in a job.  In general your prof will not just write a letter saying “She was a student here from 2010 to 2014.”  So you should select carefully whom you ask for a letter.  Pick a professor who knows you specifically, not just as a name on a course ledger.  Ideally you will have been in a class or a lab with a faculty member where you have worked closely with the person writing for you.  You will know what that person thinks of you.  And hopefully it will be good.  

The kinds of things letters of recommendation cover are reliability and responsibility, initiative and independence.  If you are applying for a job or an internship, the person reading the letter will want to know that you will be able to learn to do the job, will work well with others and can do things under their own initiative, and deal with challenging situations.  If you are applying for graduate school, the most important thing someone will want to know is if you have the ability to succeed in graduate school (for example, do you need set assignments or can you design your own methodology to achieve what you need to know; do you like research and writing and will you see a program through to completion).  Each will ask things in a slightly different way, but the person you select should be able to address these things.

There are a few other considerations that go into selection of your letter writers.  At times, it can be helpful to ask someone to write you a letter to the department in which (s)he got a graduate degree, assuming the relationship with the faculty there is still cordial (and it generally will be).  The assumption is that the person who comes from a program will have an idea what is required to succeed in that program.  If you are lucky enough to have worked in a lab with someone who is a “name” in your field, that would probably be a good person to get a letter from, but it is better to get a letter from someone who really does know who you are.  So you will have to balance things out.  
So you have figured out whom you want to ask for a letter.  The next step is to ask the professor or teacher.  I strongly recommend asking. There is nothing more annoying than being told that I need to write a letter for a student (to be fair, it has been years since that interaction has occurred).  I also recommend asking what sort of a letter you will get (it doesn’t have to be completely tentative – simply asking if your prof feels comfortable writing a strong letter for you should be sufficient.  Speaking for myself, I won’t write a letter if I don’t feel I can write a good letter for a student, and I will tell you if for some reason that is not the case.  In rare instances I have written letters and been disappointed with a student’s performance in a concurrent or later semester.  In that case, I have been known to tell a student that I will not write any subsequent letters of recommendation.  That is a painful thing for both of us, I am sure.  I know it is for me.

Your prof may ask for a list of courses you have taken, a CV or resume, and/or your personal statement or letter of application.  If I don't know you well enough, and I ask you if you really don't have someone who can write you one who knows your performance in the major you have chosen, it is a warning sign that I really won't be able to write you a glowing letter.  The best spin you can put on that is that I don't know you well enough, or at least I don't think I know you well enough.

I often get requests from people who graduated several years ago.  I keep grade books, but otherwise I may not remember that much about your individual performance.  Facebook (where I am “friends” with many past students) is helpful – I may have kept up with what you have been doing.  But it will help me to have updated information on what you have done since you graduated.  


N.B.: If you have chosen to write an elaborate critique of the course and made nasty comments about it and about me on some course/professor evaluation venue (on the internet or at the university), do not assume that I do not know this.  While this does not affect your grade (teaching you is my job and I will do that regardless of anything else), it does reflect on you and on our relationship.  I had one student working as part of a group of three and at least two (and perhaps all three) of the students bragged about the project but vented about how I was the most unhelpful and useless faculty member they had ever interacted with on campus.  I had no idea at the time they were so angry and never really knew what they were so angry about, but the report got back to me as you can predict such nasty words would, and when four years later one of them asked me for a letter of recommendation, I simply told her I did not feel I remembered her performance in the class well enough to write for her.  It was not completely true, but I did not at that point feel I felt comfortable addressing the student's maturity and ability to work through challenging circumstances.  


So now you have gotten agreement from your prof to write letters for you.  I hope you have given him or her plenty of time – at least a month.  It doesn’t mean the letter will take that long to write, but it does give your recommender plenty of time to fit it into the rather complicated schedule that is a teaching semester.  And please check if the prof would like a reminder (I much prefer it, but sometimes people find it a bit nagging – so ask to make sure what the etiquette is).  Check with the online application portal (it seems this is the most common method of submitting letters, a fact that makes me very happy) to see if the letter has been submitted, and if not send the prof a gentle reminder a week before the deadline. I did not do this myself, thirty years ago when I was applying to grad school, and one of my letters didn’t get there on time, preventing my inclusion in the pool of eligible-for-funding that first year (it worked out in the long run, but that is a long and not-very-interesting story).  So I am not offended at being reminded.  

A thank you note, once all your letters are submitted, is always appreciated.  A “thank you” when you request letters is nice, but a handwritten thank you note is a really good thing to receive (as your grandmother might tell you), and shows that you too are going out of your way.  Besides, you may want a letter from me again in the future.

Once you have gotten the letters, you should keep the recommender informed about what happens with your application.  Personally I want to know what universities you have gotten into and whether you have been offered funding.  And after you go I want to know what you are taking and most specifically, what your undergraduate program helped with or would have benefitted from, as you are going into your graduate school program.  We can help future students with your experiences.  And besides, I wrote a letter for you because I care what happens to you.  Some of my former students have become really interesting people, and some have even become people I would consider friends.  

But even if you are not my friend, or you don't ever want to have that kind of a relationship with me, I do want to keep up on what you are doing after you graduate.  When I say "keep in touch" I do mean it.  I am interested in where you go!

Originally posted to annetteboardman on Sat Jan 11, 2014 at 11:55 AM PST.

Also republished by Teachers Lounge.

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Comment Preferences

  •  This is the game-changer for me (4+ / 0-)
    Your prof may ask for a list of courses you have taken, a CV or resume, and/or your personal statement or letter of application.
    I teach juniors and seniors in high school and get many requests for LORs for undergraduate admissions (I wrote over 50 this year).  I always ask for a resume and a brief (two-three paragraph) statement of "what was the most important thing you experienced during your time at our school."  I often use snippets from the written part in my letters.  

    However, if the student cannot provide me with adequate versions of these, then I submit the three-paragraph "form letter" version.

    To be free and just depends on us. Victor Hugo.

    by dizzydean on Sat Jan 11, 2014 at 12:06:38 PM PST

  •  another way to look at this (3+ / 0-)

    I had a colleague from England. One of his players, a three-year starter and All-Conference player, came into his office to ask for a letter. John said no, but explained.

    In England, a letter of recommendation means the writer could absolutely vouch for your character. In other words, if you screw up at the job you get from this recommendation, the writer is responsible. With that in mind, people in Great Britain put a lot more weight into WHO they'll write a recommendation for. If somebody says they'll write one for you, it's a really big deal.

    My wife is a high school teacher. She caps her letters at 18 per year. She tries to write some for regular students who work hard as well as high flyers. Still, she spends HOURS of her own time every year writing these letters.

    I think the British system would be so much better, and realistic.

    “Well, hey, listen, we’ve never been “stay the course,” George Bush, 10/22/06. “We will stay the course.” George Bush, 8/30/06, 8/4/05, 4/13/04, 4/16/04, 4/5/04, 12/15/03.

    by coachster on Sat Jan 11, 2014 at 12:10:36 PM PST

  •  I get a lot of requests for letters (4+ / 0-)

    and they fall into two main categories.

    One are from students I know reasonably well - they took an upper level class with me or if they were in a big lower level class they were highly interactive.  I'm almost always happy to write letters for these students.

    The other group are students who were students in a big lower level class, often a year or more previously, and I know their name but that's about it.  They get a form letter with a few personal touches based on my conversation with them.

    The Exercise Science department at our school is really pushing itself as offering a good major for pre-med students.  However the med schools don't don't recognize Exercise Science as a 'real' science and they have a very stringent requirement that one letter must come from a professor who taught you a science course.  For the Ex Science students that mostly means someone who taught them introductory Bio, Chem, or Physics.  So I get a lot of requests for letters from Ex. Sci. majors.

    This med school requirement leads to some ridiculous situations.  I was approached by a student who had done research for a couple of years in a neurobiology lab.  I pointed out to him that the faculty member who headed the lab would know him better and would be able to speak much more eloquently to his qualities than myself who had taught him a couple of years before in a class of 300 students  However the lab head was a faculty member in Psychology which didn't count as a 'real science'.  He could use a letter from his research advisor but my letter was essential for his application even to be considered.

    "To see both sides of a quarrel, is to judge without hate or alarm" - Richard Thompson

    by matching mole on Sat Jan 11, 2014 at 12:31:06 PM PST

  •  If a student needs a letter of Recommendation... (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    annetteboardman, Vatexia, annieli helps the letter writer if the student actually did well in the class.

    Getting worse than a B is generally a deal breaker.

  •  All my LOR are for my best students. (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    annetteboardman, Vatexia

    I always include an A paper subject that my student had written in the letter. For example, in a recommendation letter for a former student, I mentioned his research paper he wrote on the novel "Little Women" in which he received an A for. He got into the school of his choice.

    Now, some schools ask you to go on line and fill out a letter of recommendation.

    "Do they call you Rush because you're in a rush to eat?" -"Stutterin' John" Melendez to Rush Limbaugh.

    by Nedsdag on Sat Jan 11, 2014 at 02:32:46 PM PST

  •  I get asked often as a high school teacher (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    annetteboardman, Vatexia, dizzydean

    the majority of students I have taught in recent years were sophomores in AP US Govt and Politics with me.  If they come to me their senior year and we have had not ongoing contact, I will usually ask why they are coming to me?  In some cases they must have a letter from either an English or a Social Studies teacher and I am the one they feel knows them the best.  In that case I will.

    In some cases I will remind a student of my experience of her/him in my class and ask if s.he still wants me to write a letter, because once I write it, it is going.

    I also tell seniors my letter is contingent on their continuing their academic performance through their senior year, that all admissions are contingent, and if they do something stupid I will not hesitate to revoke my letter -  I have only had to do that once, with a student who cheated on a 1st semester  final as a senior.  As it happens, he was only waitlisted, not admitted, and I had only written a letter for one college, and the college to which he went was unaware of the incident.  

    I write perhaps a dozen letters of recommends for seniors each year.  I also do recommends for internships for underclassmen, and now that I am teaching in a STEM program that is happening more frequently.

    "We didn't set out to save the world; we set out to wonder how other people are doing and to reflect on how our actions affect other people's hearts." - Pema Chodron

    by teacherken on Sat Jan 11, 2014 at 02:47:55 PM PST

  •  "You will know what that person thinks of you." (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    annetteboardman, Vatexia

    I have to recount an experience. This was decades ago, but possibly still relevant.

    I had a clerical job at a university. One year I was given the task of organizing and tracking graduate school applications, during which time I read many of the recommendations from college profs. Nosy, I know. I don't think anyone told me not to read them, and I was curious.

    As a whole they were shocking to me. The majority were tepid. Some were downright negative. Even 40 years later I remember one that said something on the order of "I gave her an A. She's diligent but I don't think she's too bright". I thought, poor girl, she must have no idea - couldn't he have encouraged her to find someone else to write the recommendation, if this is what he was going to say?

    A few were glowing, and some were pretty positive, but the majority were lukewarm.

    I'm sure the professors take this responsibility seriously, and feel it's a matter of professional integrity to be honest. After all, most students are middling. Even of those who work hard and get As, only a handful are exceptional and some are not up to doing graduate work.

    I felt really bad for the applicants, though, because I was sure that they all picked professors from classes in which they had done well and expected to get good references.

    Based on this experience, I question whether students really know what their teachers think of them. Unless, of course, recommendation inflation like grade inflation has occurred in the interim.

  •  backhanded compliment (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    annetteboardman, Vatexia

    Many years ago I got a letter of recommendation to an MBA program from my math professor who said something like "he is bright enough to be President!" -- since Ford was president that year, that wasn't really a compliment --

    Alas Babylon, in one hour is thy judgment come!

    by forensic economist on Sat Jan 11, 2014 at 03:36:20 PM PST

  •  An excellent diary (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    annetteboardman, dizzydean

    Every point I agree with, particularly about warning students that the recommendation may not be what they would hope for. However, students have insisted nevertheless on repeating their request (to me at least, and, by report, to several of my colleagues) despite our warnings.

    For recommendations to graduate school and for academic positions, I also try to warn students when I am being asked to write letters for several candidates for the same institution/position. I take particular trouble with these letters, making sure I separate the candidates with distinct attributes, without comparing them.

    As one who reads a lot of these letters as well, I can guarantee that we all learn how to read between the lines.

    Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary? . . . and respect the dignity of every human being.

    by Vatexia on Sat Jan 11, 2014 at 04:03:38 PM PST

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