It’s letter-writing time.
I enjoy writing letters of recommendation. I enjoy it more than I used to because I have more practice, because I have had plenty of positive feedback, and because I have learned to get to know more of my students better than I used to. But I also enjoy it because of the opportunity it gives me to reflect on the students, their skills, and their characters. Sometimes I am a bit surprised by the letter—last year a student asked me for a letter for Law school, and I knew it would be a good letter, but articulated, during the writing of it, aspects of her as a thinker and as a person that I really admire and hadn’t fully appreciated before having to write them down. It turned out to be better than merely very good, as I had anticipated.
Letter requests rarely come as a surprise these days, and for a good number of students I have little passages written in my head while I am teaching them in anticipation of the request. But this is a part of my job that I was not trained in at all. Just like teaching, you might think, but at least when I started teaching I had watched other people do it, whereas I had never even read letters of recommendation when I started. I have, by now, read thousands of letters of recommendation: even so, most of them have been for Philosophy graduate school applications, which is not what most of my letters are for, which tend to be for professional programs and (to a much lesser extent, because letters are used much less) for entry-level jobs. (When students put me down as a reference for a job I insist they give out my cell phone number, because I know I tend to respond rapidly to a voice mail (because I still, every time, expect it is going to be from the school telling me one of my children has done something awful! – and although I am basically phone-phobic, I have really enjoyed the many brief chats with Human resources people, which often seems more efficient than letter writing.
So, below, this is I write letters for students about to graduate. Please comment in whatever way seems useful – advice for me, or other letter-writers, especially if you are a consumer of such letters.
1.If a student wants a letter from me, I ask them for the following: a cv/resume, an unofficial transcript, a personal statement (if applying for a professional school), some writing they did for discipline other than Philosophy (I have a database of their papers to hand), and a personal meeting in which we can talk about their ambitions and background. In that meeting one key question I ask is whether there is some blight on their academic record that I should know about, and that they would like me to explain in my letter (eg, the student whom I’d known since a freshman, and who I discovered had been working a full time job throughout college, and whose GPA was compromised by 8 credits of Chemistry which she could have dropped but refused to because she is gritty beyond belief).
2.I always explain, early in the letter, how I know the student, and describe his or her academic performance in my classes. Since I am very frequently the letter writer who knows the student best (more on that at the end of the post) I emphasize how well I know them by describing how long I’ve known them and the frequency of interaction while they were not in my classes.
3.I talk in the letter about their ambitions, and their personality, as they relate to the career the student is aiming for. I seem to have written a lot of letters for counseling and social work programs lately, for all of which the academic record is relevant, but for all of which various personality traits (caring, empathy, ability to listen, insight into other people) seem at least equally relevant. I have increasingly conducted my classes in ways that make it more likely that some of these traits will be revealed directly – so, for example, I require collaborative work in my freshman classes, and require that students reflect and report on the process of collaboration. With the freshmen, many of whom I will know for 4 years, I encourage them to make sure that they talk to me over time about the things they do (volunteering, interning, or working for pay) through which job-relevant traits may be revealed.
4.My letters are always at least a single-spaced page, and sometimes as long as two, but rarely longer than that (and if they ever are longer, I make them really exciting to read!). They end with a summary of how the student is suited to the trajectory they have chosen and always end with a phrase inviting the reader to get in touch if they want more information.
5.Asking for a letter of recommendation is easy for some students but it’s hard for others, and my anecdotal evidence is that this ease and difficulty are not unrelated to social class background. But even for students who are not inhibited by their undue deference, I have found that some are inhibited by the relationship – especially if I know them well, they do not want to make the relationship seem instrumenal (even though, to some extent, it is – they NEED a professor to know them well enough to write them a letter, and if I am that professor they shouldn’t waste that opportunity). So sometimes, indeed increasingly often these days, I pre-empt the request by pointing out to a student that I am in a good position to write them a letter, and say that when the time comes I will be happy to do it. This is especially important, I think, for working class, and especially minority working class, students who find it difficult to ask, and are not necessarily being urged by their parents to build the relationships with professors that yield letters. It usually works. If a student does ask and seems embarrassed I always point out to them that (though I am entirely untrained) it is my job to write letters, but then add that I would be glad to do it even if it weren’t my job. I still regret, quite a bit, letting one student whom I knew was going to be reluctant to ask for a letter get to the point just before I offered (she wasn’t quite as reluctant as I’d thought, and beat me by about a minute!)
6.I frequently help them manage other requests – by telling them, for example, to offer the relevant materials, and make sure they at least have a brief chat about their trajectories with the potential writers.
7.I do decline sometimes, but pretty much never for reasons of time – I decline if I really don’t know the student and can’t get to know him/her in the time, or if I think they’d be making a mistake going into the profession. It’s very rare that someone asks me for a letter to do something I really think they cannot do well in.
Here’s a fairness issue. Most relationships a faculty member has with a student are student-initiated. On a campus like mine students from less advantaged backgrounds are less likely, on average, to build relationships with faculty that will give them access to the letter writing advantage that a faculty member can give them. Not because they are academically weaker, or any less deserving, but because they have different habits and expectations. Shouldn’t faculty go out of their way not only to be available to those students but to initiate interactions liable to lead to the kind of familiarity that makes letter writing natural and easy? If you think so, how do you do that (or how was it done for you)?
(I was prompted to write this by a conversation yesterday with an administrator who used to be in arts and humanities teaching, and expressed dismay that she, like I, was often the lead writer for a student applying to Medical school – because those students get to know their breadth professor (or whoever) better than any of their major teachers. Same happens to me with business students: I’m not complaining, but it always strikes me as not good that I know them better than any of their major professors do).