Friday, October 22, 2010


Ask the Administrator: Tracking Down Letters of Recommendation

A longtime reader writes:

I recently graduated from a third tier SUNY school with a degree in English. I want to be a high school English teacher, which mean I want to go to grad school for a masters in adolescent education/teaching. I transferred into said SUNY from a cc my junior year. Graduated from SUNY with a 2.84 (3.0's and above for 3 out of my 4 semesters; got 3 C's one semester...brought down my gpa some, but I've always been a good student in college). I took some time these past few months, and it was then I decided to apply to grad school. Found some schools in my area that accommodated to a gpa under 3.0, and I plan on taking the GRE to off-set that. (most of these schools btw require ACADEMIC recs, not professional, etc.)

My problem arises from the recommendation portion of my applications....I can't get one! So while it never hurts to ask, I've contacted a few professors (through e-mail) from classes that I've gotten B's and above in. I've written very kind and thought-out e-mails explaining my future academic plans, asking if they would write me a recommendation, but understanding and thanking them anyway if they couldn't. I've had professors turn me down (nicely), and some professors, after a few follow-up e-mails, never getting back to me at all.

I don't want to settle on a future w/o a graduate education because of the unwillingness of a few professors. I also don't really have the hundreds of dollars per credit to take 2 or 3 more english courses at a local college, get an awesome grade, and then HOPE that I'll get a recommendation out of it.

And yes, I have found 1 program near me that doesn't require any recs, but I'm not going to put all my eggs in one basket.

I’ve never been a fan of letters of recommendation. Especially at this level, they seem to reward extroversion more than quality, and those who by luck of the draw happened to get full-time, as opposed to adjunct, professors.

That said, though -- and please don’t take this the wrong way -- it sounds like your transcript could use some sort of boost. A GPA below 3 can make admission to many graduate programs an uphill battle.

I’m also curious about the professors who actually had email exchanges with you, but then declined to write letters. Since you actually had exchanges with them, this wasn’t a matter of not being able to track down people who had left. In my experience, professors decline to write letters when they either don’t believe that the student was especially worthy, or they really don’t know the student well enough to say. (It’s conceivable that they could also plead workload, though I wouldn’t expect that to come after exchanging multiple emails.)

So it’s possible that the GPA cutoff and the palpable lack of enthusiasm on the part of your former professors are effectively conspiring to tell you something.

Or not; you could just be a victim of circumstance. But I wouldn’t be surprised if the folks on graduate admissions committees wondered the same thing. If you’re up against other applicants with GPA’s well above 3 and solid letters, I don’t like your chances.

One way around that is precisely what you described: take some other classes, knock them out of the park, and show that you’re stronger than your record thus far would suggest.

Another would be to start with private high schools. They can set their own hiring requirements, and they usually don’t require teaching certifications. If you find the right setting, you may be able to find out fairly quickly whether teaching high school is really for you. Even there, though, you may be up against plenty of people with Master’s degrees, and the pay is typically pretty low.

Since my familiarity with teacher education programs is on the beginning end, I’ll have to ask my wise and worldly readers who know that world better than I do what they would suggest. Wise and worldly readers who know this stuff -- is there a better option?

Good luck!

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.

To the original correspondent - have you asked any of your more trusted profs *why* they declined to write a letter for you? Or what things you could do to make yourself a better candidate in the future? If you are truly open to some honest feedback, you might learn some useful things by doing that.

Also note that just because you pulled a B in a class doesn't mean the prof feels comfortable writing a letter. There is also the question of whether the prof feels they know you well enough to say something genuine about you (did you get a B in a class of 300? or 25? Did you participate in class discussion, go to office hours, etc? Or sit quietly?). And I have had very occasional "B" students for whom I wouldn't write letters because, although they earned a reasonable grade, they were a major pain in the neck in the process, or because it was pretty darn clear that they slacked a LOT (sleeping in class, that sort of thing). While students who do those things also don't typically earn B's, there are a few who can - and do. Typically I don't feel I can write a strong enough letter to be of any help to students in those categories. Since a bland or unenthusiastic letter can hurt you as much as a negative letter, in situations like that, I decline to write letters for those students.

A note on this:

"those who by luck of the draw happened to get full-time, as opposed to adjunct, professors."

Nice gratuitous sideswipe at adjuncts, dean dad. As an adjunct I write letters of rec on a weekly basis. Since I, like many adjuncts at the school where I teach, have been there longer than 1/3 of the tenure-track faculty in my department, I don't buy into the "adjuncts are here today, gone tomorrow" world view. And although I do routinely advise "my" students to find some tenured people to write letters for them too, many of my tenure-track colleagues are simply unwilling, or do very little teaching and thus don't have regular contact with many students. When it comes to asking who knows the students well enough to write a decent letter, it is often an adjunct who has taught the student in 2-3-4 classes, has advised the student for years, and has watched the student grow and mature from first year to senior year.
I don't think that's a swipe at adjuncts, but a swipe at a system that is (unfortunately and unfairly) unlikely to value the recommendation of an adjunct as much as one from a someone who's perceived to be a "real" professor.
While 2.84 is an acceptable GPA, in no way would it be considered a good GPA. It barely falls above the bare minimum requirements to graduate from an undergraduate teacher ed program (both in education hours and in content hours).

Dean Dad's advice is right on target - take additional classes to knock it out of the park if you are really serious about this. Past performance is still the best indicator of future performance.
My masters' thesis adviser changed institutions and then declined to write me a rec letter when I applied to PhD programs a couple of years later, basically because she was pretty pissed about how the institution I'd had her at had treated her. (Short version: Dean felt women could only teach in certain disciplines, she was denied tenure for having ovaries. I'd be pissed too.)


If I ever have to pick an adviser again, definitely I will be asking, "Are you emotionally stable enough that if you change institutions and are bitter at your old one, you will still give STUDENTS who had nothing to do with it rec letters?"

(In the end I did not pursue the Ph.D., for a variety of family and professional reasons. But I'm still pretty pissed about it.)

The other thing I've noticed about rec letters is they reward the "straight through" students and punish those with gaps in their academic resumes -- adults who want to return to school, young adults who take a few years off to work, etc. Much harder to get rec letters at that point.
A 2.84 is NOT a good GPA, at least at my institution, where the average is almost-but-not-quite a B+.
If there are profs you'd like recommendations from whom you haven't contacted, or who responded that they didn't remember you, you might consider trying to contact them in person if you're nearby or at least attach a picture to your next email.

Most of their contact with you was probably in person, and a lot of people forget names sooner than faces.
I would agree with Allison. If you graduated recently, then you might well be in a position to go visit the campus a couple of times. Call the department and ask about office hours, and then go to office hours. (Most faculty in my experience keep them. Some probably don't.)

When you go in, take: copies of one or more graded papers or exams you received from the instructor. A copy of your transcript. A statement of purpose, which should make an effort to explain why someone with marginal grades might be a decent teacher after all. And copies of whatever forms the school(s) you're applying to require, along with self-addressed stamped envelops if appropriate. Make up a packet for each instructor.

I agree with the other folks about the marginal grades, by the way. A 2.84 would barely qualify for admission to our undergrad education program; I'd be really hesitant to write for any student who didn't do significantly better than that in my courses.

I'd advise you to take a couple more courses, work on getting stellar grades and being a stellar student, and then start afresh with requests for letters.
Anonymous @ 4.13; Allison & Bardiac all offer strong advice. If you are serious about grad school you should follow it.

You should carefully reconsider your idea about going to grad school with a GPA of 2.84. I teach for a program that trains teachers for High School History and Social Science. Majors who graduate with a GPA of 3.8 or higher land teaching positions right away. Graduates with GPAs of 3.4 or lower tend not to find teaching jobs ever, or if they do its after years of searching. If you get into a program and graduate with an undistinguished GPA, finding a job will be an uphill battle

Maybe audit or take a couple of masters level classes as an extension student. If you can ace those classes, you might have a shot of putting your low GPA behind you. If not, you might want to try something else.
Re Sean, "I don't think that's a swipe at adjuncts, but a swipe at a system that is (unfortunately and unfairly) unlikely to value the recommendation of an adjunct as much as one from a someone who's perceived to be a real' professor."

It's a valid observation about a system of higher education that attempts to deliver credit hours on the cheap, but does so in such a way that the instructors (deliberate choice of words, drawing distinction from professors) don't have the kind of opportunity to get to know the students that's a precondition for providing proper letters of recommendation, let alone advice to students considering an academic vocation.
As someone who did not have a undergraduate degree in my chosen field, I asked community friends to write my recommendations.

These friends were people who I had got to know through extensive (years) of leadership volunteer service in the area I wanted to pursue.

So perhaps my recommendation is to get some teaching experience (after-school programs, volunteer youth leadership schemes etc) and gain credibility that way before applying for a graduate program. With good service you will probably have more relevant recommendations than any professor could give you.
Sorry, but I simply don't understand the starting point of "I want to be a high school English teacher, which mean I want to go to grad school for a masters in adolescent education/teaching."

You many WANT to go to grad school, but in my state you only NEED to complete a double major, adding a "HS english ed" undergrad degree to your existing BA degree. That can be quite economical if your BA courses meet the breadth requirement for the teaching degree.

However, your undergrad grades would not get you into some of the UNDERGRAD ed programs in this state as I understand the CC transfer information we get on a regular basis. (That said, it could be that earning a 4.0 in the pre-ed courses at a CC would get you into some of them.) Details vary from place to place, but it might be easiest to do this at your 3rd tier SUNY where you are still, in some sense, a student. Or not, if they know that anything less than a B is effectively a failing grade in undergrad majors classes in that department.
Nice gratuitous sideswipe at adjuncts, dean dad. As an adjunct I write letters of rec on a weekly basis. Since I, like many adjuncts at the school where I teach, have been there longer than 1/3 of the tenure-track faculty in my department, I don't buy into the "adjuncts are here today, gone tomorrow" world view.

It doesn't matter how long you've been teaching at your particular institution; on the whole, adjunct labor is more transient. When I was tracking down letters for law school, I was only able to go after one of the three adjunct professors I really wanted. The second was backpacking in Kenya, and the third had taken non-academic work in a Swedish think-tank-- I could have tracked the latter down if I needed to, but it wasn't worth the hassle. My tenured/tenure track profs, on the other hand, we're still in their offices. It's not a swipe against adjuncts, it's just that on average it's more likely that an adjunct will have departed than a traditional employee.
It just occured to me the other day that I may be within good reason to build up relationships with tenure as opposed to adjuncts at my small public uni, and here I am reading about it on a dean's blog! Much of this comming as a former college drop out trying desperatly to build up my resume, GPA and experience. I can relate to the poster (even though he is in a better situation than I am) Wonderful debate
- Meranda Fallen.
Dean Dad, I'm not quite on board with your science in this paragraph here: "Another would be to start with private high schools. They can set their own hiring requirements, and they usually don’t require teaching certifications. If you find the right setting, you may be able to find out fairly quickly whether teaching high school is really for you. Even there, though, you may be up against plenty of people with Master’s degrees, and the pay is typically pretty low."

I'm going to echo a comment from the IHE website - working at private (independent) K-12 school is not really a viable way to circumvent licensure requirements. An independent school that will hire a clearly underqualified English teacher (if there are any of those schools these days) is frankly not a place where you want to work. They probably will work you to the bone, burn you out, and send you on your way with no money and even fewer prospects than you feel that you have now.

HOWEVER, some independent schools do have internships, where you might be a dorm parent, coach a sport, and get some experience as an assistant in an English class. In some ways, this is independent schooling's own type of program to vet and provide qualifications and experience to new teachers. After a year or two in a program like that, you could then send out a much stronger resume for a full-time English teaching job in an independent school.

There are placement companies for independent schools that can be found easily on the Internet. I would recommend that you start there. NAIS is the National Association for Independent Schools, that can get you on your way, too.

Oh, and one final note to the correspondent. It's not easy to train for a job as a teacher in a K-12 school. Don't fool yourself. You have to work hard, pay your dues, make a good impression on a lot of people (and retain that good impression), and do good work consistently and under stress. Are you ready for that? You clearly have struggled with that in the past. What has changed in you?
I also don't think DD was making a swipe at adjuncts. I spend A LOT of time advising students about grad/professional schools and about "prestige fellowships." In that world, we avoid anyone who doesn't have "professor" in the title, and "assistant professors" can be iffy. We can be an incredibly snobby bunch in higher ed, and the letter readers want to be dazzled by the credentials of the letter writer as well as the applicant.

In a case where an adjunct or grad student knows the student better, we routinely ask them to write a letter to the internal committee, which we then incorporate into another letter.

To the original poster: I echo what others have already said. It sounds like grad school is not your best option right now. I'd look for work in a private school, take a class or two as a non-matriculated grad student and see how things pan out. Good luck.
I agree with Bardiac on the paperwork and also see the professors in person. It would help if you could tell them why you wanted to become a teacher and it was for some reason other than to have a job. Maybe because you wanted to teach the basics of good English to high school students so they could concentrate on intellectual growth in thinking and Literature instead of struggling with the basics?

Use your experience of difficulty making A's as giving you insight of how to help students.

If you want to teach because it sounds like a pretty good job - not a calling, you may sound lukewarm about it. If you want to teach because you want to really help students so they don't make the same mistakes you made, you will sound sincere and committed to teaching.

I think most professors will be willing to write letters for someone who is dedicated to helping students.

You might have to retake one or two of your C classes and impress the professor with outstanding work. If you need three recommendations, take three classes with different professors; if two, take two. This way will take more time and delay your preparation, but if you made C's because of your study habits and class attendance, you will show you can be an excellent student. If you made C's because of not having the aptitude for English, you will impress the professor with your dedication and focus. But if you made C's because of little verbal aptitude, I would recommend changing the subject you want to teach. Perhaps you have the aptitude for a non-verbal field such as Math.

If your aptitude is more nonverbal and mechanical, try some type of engineering, not teaching.

Since I don't know you, I don't know what your motivation and strengths are. Talk to one of the counselors at your previous college about your academic and learning strengths.

Good luck to you on your journey to a career.
2.84 is not a good GPA. 3.3 is a good GPA. I would not be writing recommendations for a student who was in a C+ place. I agree with those who say that you're better off taking some courses and displaying a new aptitude.
CCPhysicist, since the writer indicated s/he went to a SUNY it's worth noting that Master's degrees are needed to teach in NYS. Some places allow you to get it within so many years of starting teaching, other places want it up front. So while the extra classes in ed for a BA might prove helpful, it's the MA that's needed.
Nice blog! I like your writing way. I'm doing practice GMAT here: . I hope it's useful for GMAT test takers.
To the correspndent: Requirements for becoming a teacher vary from state to state. When I was considering life as a high school teacher, some states required only a bachelor's degree. A few others demanded only the bachelor's degree with a few education course. Also, it was possible to teach in parochial schools (where the pay was even less than in private schools) in most places, including New York and New Jersey.

I don't know whether the same conditions pertain. If they do, you might want to consider relocating (New York actually has some of the more stringent requirements.) or starting in a parochial school.

Also: Are you a creative person? If you have a manuscript, you might want to try getting into an MFA program in creative writing. Some of them care more about your manuscript than about your transcript. You'll have your master's degree, and then you can take whatever education classes you need. Again, check the requirements for wherever you want to teach.
The correspondent needs to recognize that s/he is *not* a good student. S/he is a marginal student with a GPA that is probably in the lower half of the graduating class.

Nor is getting a "B" in class a particular accomplishment - while it's better than a lower grade, it's good bet that *at least* 60% of students in the class *also* got a B or better.

I never asked for a letter of recommendation from a prof in whose class I received less than an A, and I never gave a letter of recommendation to a student who made less than an "A" in a class I was teaching. And I always kind of felt like that was the standard - maybe your profs felt this, too. In fact, with one exception, I always asked for letters from profs with whom I had had a goodly amount of interaction.

Now it's possible that your overall GPA doesn't accurately reflect your academic ability...and getting a good score on the GRE can help with that (as can showing that your GPA improved in your later years of college, suggesting that the GPA from your last two years is a more accurate indicator of your ability).

But as for letters, you need to go to profs from whom you got an A and who will have some reason to remember you. (I mean otherwise, what are they supposed to write about you? "I do not personally remember this student, but s/he, along with the majority of the class, was able to earn at least a B"?)

So it seems like taking a couple of additional courses and producing a memorable performance is a good approach.
This student transferred to the SUNY, which probably means he or she only has two years worth of grades making up the GPA. To get the 2.84 GPA, his/her transcript would look something like:

Fall Junior Year: B B B B
Spring Junior Year: C C C C
Fall Senior Year: B B B A-
Spring Senior Year: B B B A-

Or, possibly, this student got several B+ grades and no A- grades.

If teachers are reluctant to offer letters of recommendation to students who didn't get an A, that would explain this student's difficulties.
very informative blog thats why i visit your posts daily so keep posting if any one wants to apply abroad then University admission from here.keep posting
I teach in a program in upstate NY that specializes in teaching ed majors. Beyond the valuable advice you've gotten -- recognize your own challenges as a student, overcome them in a set of classes to demonstrate that maturity has made a different student out of you -- it's time to face a different kind of music. The job market regionally is very poor at the moment for your chosen discipline. Are you ready to move (and enthusiastic about it)? If you plan to stay in New York, are you willing and enthusiastic to teach in urban settings? Are you fluent in Spanish? That's a real plus in NY that can cause a hiring committee to take a second look at your app. Are you a value-added candidate? If you have special and demonstrated strengths in info tech, for example, that can give you an edge. Frankly, though, our state is in a HUGE budget crisis and the next ten years are going to be pretty bleak on the ed front. If you've got a passion for the work and are realistic about what getting a job in the field likely requires (moving to a demand area, first and foremost), solve the recommendation problems and go for it. Otherwise, not so much.
Those must be pretty lame MA degrees if there is any truth to what I read in The New Yorker.

Anyway, NY is not the only state in the nation, and that SUNY degree can go anywhere. In addition, not all private schools have dorms or anything that would resemble high standards. In my state, there are quite a few that even teach Creationism in Biology class. However, even those can find a higher GPA than that to teach English in the current economic climate.
I have a problem along the same vein for which I could use some advice. I graduated with a 3.45 GPA, but back in 2003. In 2004 and took the LSAT and scored in the 90th percentile. At that time I requested letters of recommendation from the three professors with whom I felt I performed the best. These letters were promptly written and submitted to the LSAC who retains possession of them to this day and will not release them to me.

I landed a terrific job and my wife and I started a family and I made the decision not to attend law school. Now seven years have passed and I have a desperate urge to obtain the Masters in English Composition and Rhetoric with the goal of teaching at the CC level. I am currently preparing for the GRE as I would like to have those scores to reference in requesting the letters.

My biggest problem is that 2 of the 3 professors who wrote my original letters are nowhere to be found. They have left the university and no amount of internet searching is helping me track them down. Is there a resource available to help in this regard?

My other problem is more of a question. As it has been 7 years since I have taken a class from the one prof I can find, is it beneficial to remind him that he wrote a letter for me previously that was not used, or will this turn him off to helping me as he had already done so once before?

Thanks in advance for any advice anyone can offer.

Not really familiar with the law school application process. Why did the LSAC take your letters hostage? Have/did you try o appeal this?
The LSAC policy is that LOR must be sent directly to them and once submitted becomes their sole property. They will not release them to the applicant nor provide copies. They will only release them to a law school when you pay their fee to have your entire application package submitted. I am at a loss as to deducing their motivation though I am sure it is mostly financial.

As I have never even seen these letters I don't even know if they would be applicable to an MA application as they may reference law school in some way.
Is a letter going to do you any good whatsoever if it comes from a person who hasn't seen or heard from you in 7 years? I would think not. I think you should stop putting efforts in that direction and put more effort into getting CURRENT letters from people who know you now.
I am not sure I understand what you are saying. Will the admissions office of my program discount the validity of the letters based on the amount of time that has passed since my interactions with the writer? Is there a formula you can share?

How do you suggest I obtain more current letters of recommendation from an academic source when I have not been in school for seven years? Going back to school under the pretense of obtaining a second bachelors degree in order to gain three new professors willing to write an LOR seems like a waste of public resources as well as my own money, and I can't believe this is how the system is designed to work.
Why not contact the Admissions folks at the places you're applying? This can't be the first time they've encountered this situation.

Also, bold move on ditching an actual paying job to move to adjuncting. Family money?
I wish. No, just a strong desire to do this thing.
@Jared: The only people who should move from a paying job into adjuncting are people who have family money and don't care about the salaries. Please consider another route for your ambitions, including substitute teaching at the local HS.
Can you please explain why you feel this way?
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