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!