Monday, March 31, 2014


How Do You Write Letters of Recommendation?

Have you ever been trained in how to write a letter of recommendation?

On the blogs, when we talk about letters of recommendation, we usually refer to letters for grad students trying to get faculty (or postdoc) jobs.  Here I’m thinking more specifically of letters for undergraduate students, whether in support of transfer, scholarship applications, or whatever.
Given how much letters can count, I’m struck that we almost never talk about how to write them.  They’re a genre of their own.

For example, I’ve been told -- and I don’t know how true this is -- that without a FERPA waiver, it’s illegal to reveal a student’s grade in a letter.  That does not appear to be common knowledge.

Letters can also reveal information about race, gender, family situations, and other sorts of information that normally would be problematic, if not forbidden, in consideration of one candidate as against another.  Gender may be inevitable, given the third-person pronoun choices that the English language affords, but the other categories are not.  And it’s difficult to be both specific and compelling in describing a candidate, and also demographically vague at the same time.  

Some professors move quickly to the quantitative: “this student is among the top x percent in my y years of teaching.”  Others shy away from that, instead going with the poignant quote or the telling anecdote.  

Given the disparity of styles in writing letters, I’m concerned that student outcomes may be more reflective of differences in faculty writing styles than of differences in student performance or ability.  There’s also an institutional bias: for national (as opposed to campus) awards, I would expect that students from smaller schools would have a natural advantage.  It’s easier to get noticed in a class of fifteen than in a class of two hundred.

So, two questions for my wise and worldly readers.

First, have you ever been formally taught about conventions, expectations, and/or rules for writing letters of recommendation?

Second, if you were designing a workshop or short course on letters of recommendation, what would you include?

I have written tons of letters, mostly for undergrads, and occasionally for transfer purposes. My answers to your questions:

1. No, I never had formal training in writing letters of rec.

2. I would give my number one rule: If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all. Tell the student you don't know enough about their work to write a good letter, and leave it at that. Also my number two rule: Read the damn application and make sure your letter addresses all the relevant points.

For the record, I will mention specific grades and class ranking, but only when they are high. Otherwise I use a phrase like "performed well in class" or some such.
Hmmn... Okay, my brief rules of thumb:

1) Nowadays, I only agree to write letters for students where I'd be happy your letter might be read by people you know. (I.e., Richard's Answer #2 is my principle #1.

2) The essentials: how I know the student (and for how long), what I've observed, any intangible qualities I can fairly testify to.

3) I ask that students give me some concrete information about what they're applying for, even if it's a brief description. If I can honestly say a student is a good match, I'll explain how.

4) I also ask that the student give me decent lead time -- a few weeks at least.

5) There are ways to encourage students to find other letter-writers where appropriate, without saying, "Sure, I'll tell everyone all your flaws." For example, if I have qualms about writing a grad-school letter for a student who did decently but spectacularly, I'll probably explain something like the following: "You should be aware that some places ask recommenders to place students on a scale such as "top 5% of students you've taught," "top 15%," etc. Your grade in the class was X; here was the range in the class: {range here}. I will honestly and truthfully say that I think you can do the work for Y; I will also truthfully assess where you are if I am asked a question like the above."
DD, you know full well that the formal training in writing letters of recommendation that most of us got falls right in line with the formal training in teaching that most of us got. "You'll be fine." Um, yeah.

That said: even if I didn't get formal training, when I started doing pre-professional advising, I started building relationships with schools where I was likely to see my students wind up. (For friends in the southeast: I got a TON of good clues from staff at Mercer University, Auburn University's pharmacy school, and East Tennessee State University, and I really can't recommend those places enough, especially for having admissions and recruitment staff that will listen to questions and give specifics about what will benefit them.)

The challenge, PARTICULARLY for those of us who will get multiple letters of recommendation read at a given place and therefore are going to get known for our tone, is to strike a VERY careful balance of constructing a real picture of the student while emphasizing the positives that student brings to a given program or a given position. Obviously, if you don't have positives to share, or - CRITICALLY - if you have limited concrete examples to defend those positives, then you don't write the letter, period. (I'll back up Richard and Sherman on this.)

My rule number 1 is all about concrete examples. The letter of glittering generalities is death. If you want to promote a student's positive character, you HAVE to have things you have observed that student doing, or experiences that student can document and respond to on their own terms, to back up that positive character.

(Like I said, I'm in health professions advising - in that universe, letters that talk about how much a student wants to "help people" are USELESS. I love Doug Taylor, who directs admissions at ETSU's medical school - "you want to go into medicine to help people! Great! How are you helping people NOW?" This is very hard for some populations of students, who are literally doing everything they can to keep financially afloat as an undergrad, but it does separate a much more substantial population of students who have the resources to do good, waste it, and still think just good grades will be enough for them later.)

Honestly, I could go for hours about this, and it's very tempting to. I know way too many people who don't take the work of supporting their students at the next phase of their careers seriously, and particularly when you're dealing with students who come from lesser resources, that neglect does real damage and perpetuates privilege. However distasteful they might be, letters of recommendation are an absolutely critical part of our work as credentialed faculty and administration.
I'd never given much thought to the implications of FERPA on recommendation letters, but a strict interpretation would seem to prevent grade disclosure. This is an interesting article I just found:
I might actually take its advice and start having students sign a waiver.
In the current litigious environment, any faculty member needs to be extremely careful when they write letters of recommendation for students. If I say too much about a student’s academic record, could I be in violation of FERPA? What can I say and what can’t I say? After all, I am not a lawyer and I do not know all the ins and out of the FERPA law. Should I wave the letter in front of the school’s lawyer before I send it out? In addition, if something I say in the letter causes the student to lose the appointment that they are seeking, could the student turn around and sue me?

I wonder if these above considerations have resulted in a gross inflation in letters of recommendation—that all of them now invariably say that the candidate literally walks on water. If you send out a letter that has even a hint of being lukewarm, or even points out some of the student’s weaknesses, are you putting the student at a disadvantage vis-à-vis all those other letters for competing candidates that literally gush about how great they are. If the letter is lukewarm, perhaps this implies to the receiving committee that you really think that the student is an utter doofus, and that you are really afraid to tell them the truth.

Perhaps we need to follow MRW’s advice and have student sign a waiver before you agree to write a letter of recommendation for them.

My experience reading hundreds of letters is what taught me to write them.

If I were doing a workshop, I would try to get examples of letters that worked and those that didn't and go through those with faculty. I would also have them read letters and rate them and think about the impression given by different ways of presenting the student. I would also talk about the different expectations of different types of schools and present the same student in different letter formats. I think of these letters as a "learn by doing" sort of thing.

In my on-line course, I have started insisting on a pre-letter interview because I sometimes do not know the gender of my students and that makes writing the letter difficult. I have a formula that I follow using the statement of interest and resume that allows me to create a picture of the student - a trick I learned from reading other letters.
Holy cow, MRW, you've got a gold mine behind that link you provided:

DD, I think that might be the "formal training" thing you're looking for.
I always have them give me a copy of the resume they are submitting. Not only does that help me reinforce the pitch they are making, more than once it has allowed me to catch some really bad mistakes. You don't lead with your office or sales skills when applying for a research internship!
To help you write letters in english, you can try an Android app called Easy Letters:
Easy letters Pro:
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To help you write letters in english, you can try an Android app called Easy Letters:
Easy letters Pro:
Easy Letters Free:
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