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?