Reader Response Roundup: 5 Principles for Writing Effective Letters of Recommendation for Grad School Applicants

stack of lettersLast week I asked the wonderful ProfHacker readers to help shed some light on their process for writing the best possible letters of recommendation for your students who are applying to grad school. I was hoping to get some advice for myself (as I’m currently working on letters for a few students) and for all of the other graduate students, new faculty members, or alt-academics who haven’t yet spent a lot of time reading (and therefore learning from) application packets. As we’ve come to expect from our community here, you were more than up to the challenge.

All of the comments to my post are worth reading in their entirety. And two linked to much longer discussions that are worth your time: Nate Kreuter’s “Writing Badass Letters of Recommendation” and “Tips on Writing Letters of Recommendation” from ssaulvolk, Director of Oberlin’s teaching and learning center (Center for Teaching Innovation and Excellence, CTIE). Still, I did want to condense some of what was said into five basic principles that I’m taking away with me from the discussion. Not all of the commenters agree with each other, but many of them have something to say about these principles.

Be Specific

Probably the most consistent refrain from all of the respondents was that letter writers needed to provide specific examples of whatever it is that you want to recommend. As aeonelpis writes, “If you make a claim about the student’s intellectual curiosity, ground it with an example from your time working with the student” and bekka_alice argues that  ”a scholarship app with a four-page recital of glowing but unspecific praise…can’t compete with a one-page application with three lines about admiration of a student and then bullet point listing of specific accomplishments with a two-sentence summary of how those accomplishments relate to the goals and values of…the school to which a student applies.” abcde1234 asks for particular examples that demonstrate that the applicant “has the potential for excellence in independent research, will perform well in challenging upper level courses.”

Specificity, as pstambler writes, helps us avoid “the boilerplate letter,” instead crafting a letter that is very much about the “this singular, individual candidate.” Without this evidence, ksledge notes, “The letter…sounds fake.” To avoid sounding fake, anon1972 recommends not discussing extracurricular activities that students may have listed on their CVs but that you have not directly observed the student participating in. Sticking to what you directly know about the student will make for the most persuasive case.

In many ways, this advice should make sense to anyone who writes for a living–something that every academic, in part, does. After all, we know that it is important to provide evidence for the claims that we make, whether we teach literature, law, or medicine.

When thinking about specific aspects of a student to discuss, aeonelpis recommends a list of qualities from the Law School Admissions Council (LSAC)–”time management, maturity, communication skills, leadership, etc.”–as “a nice set of topics…to consider when assessing a student’s potential for advanced study, regardless of her/his field.” ksledge similarly “think[s] about what skills and attributes are important for doing well in graduate school, and then…evaluate[s] the student on those metrics.” robbie1 provides another expansive list of what s/he considers when writing for a student: “his/her approach to learning, diligence with assignments, ability to do and articulate his/her original ideas, demonstration of intellectual and personal ethics regarding one’s own work and the contributions of others.”

Provide Context

As kathryntomasek puts it, it is important for us to give the admissions committee an idea of “how you are qualified to recommend this student.” Discussing the number of courses and number of years that you’ve known the applicant need not take a lot of space, but it provides the committee a sense of how accurate your assessment is. After all, they are trying to find people that they will be happy to have in their program for the next two to ten years.

Along with providing information about how you know the student, you might also think about putting the student into context with others that you have taught. As kathryntomasek writes, “in the context of all the students you have ever taught, where would you rank this student?” If you’ve previously had students go on to graduate school or have supervised graduate students, abcde1234 wants to know how the present applicant compares. Even if you’re relatively new to the profession and/or writing recommendation letters, abcde1234 provides helpful tips about context: “If you’re new at this and have not supervised PhD students or undergrads who became successful PhD students, compare this applicant with people you knew during your training. Does he or she think like them? Work as hard? Communicate as well? Show better or worse judgment? This information helps us weigh your letter in relation to other letters or elements in the file.”

Along with your own relationship to the student, abcde1234 also recommends providing some context for problematic spots in a student’s record. Rather than ignoring a bad grade in an important class or a bad semester, a recommender’s explanation of the situation can help the admissions committee understand how a student is still a viable match for the program she is applying to.

Finally, in an email exchange, a mentor of mine recommended that letter writers mention whether or not they have discussed what comes after graduate school with the applicant. Given the pressures on the academy (as well as the whole economy), my mentor suggested that knowing that the applicant really understands what graduate school entails and what possible successful exit paths looked like would make him feel more comfortable about the whole of the applicant’s materials.

Ask the Student for Information and Documents You’ll Need

Several commenters discussed the different materials they ask for from their students. In the attempt to be specific (see above), aeonelpis asks “students if they have materials they would like to provide me to inform my letter-writing process.” There are some basic documents: pstambler asks for the student’s CV, and ksledge and tishaturk ask students for drafts of their statement of purpose. jbechtold has a Reference Bio form that asks students “how long they have known me, in what contexts, grades they have received in my classes, notable assignments completed for me and grades, relevant work experience both within and outside the department, internships/practica/off-campus learning, etc.”

But beyond the basic documents needed to flesh out our knowledge of a student’s past and future academic career, many commenters request more qualitative and reflective information. pstambler requests “a letter (or notes) detailing what the candidate wants to do, what qualities have best prepared her, and what special academic and non-academic qualities she will bring to the new post or school.” hesterlfuller similarly asks students for a list of “things they are thinking *I* could say in support of their application, based on my personal experience of our relationship.”

tishaturk asks for an additional piece of information: how the letter s/he writes will fit in with those of other recommenders. Knowing what to emphasize in the letter that you write–”their writing? their participation in discussion? their work in our campus writing center? their development over time? some combination of these things?”–will allow the student to present a more complete, coordinated picture of herself to the admissions committee. allencar similarly finds coordination among letters helpful.

In addition to providing you with the material that you need to write an effective letter, asking students for particular materials gives them a chance to reflect on their own reasons for applying to a particular program/school. And, as hesterlfuller suggests, the act of assembling the materials we ask for may very well cause some students to realize that you are not the best person to recommend him or her.

Be Sure You Can Recommend the Student

While it can be uncomfortable for us to tell a student that we do not feel that we will not recommend him, it is far better for us to say “no” than to write a mediocre or unenthusiastic letter. Students should ask potential recommenders if they will be able to write a positive recommendation as kthartman suggests. But since many will not take this step, we need to recognize that the ethical thing to do is to tell those whom we cannot recommend that they should seek another letter writer.

oh_richard added an important suggestion–with which allencar agrees–about the forms that frequently accompany letters of recommendations: “review it before agreeing to write the letter.” Making sure that you can comment on on those areas that a program really wants to know about insures that it appears that the letter writer does in fact know the student well enough to recommend him or her.

It’s important to consider your standing in the academy. If, as Nate Kreuter notes in his blog post, “you are a graduate student, your letters will–for better or worse–carry less weight than those of a professor.” When I was a grad student or working as an adjunct faculty member, I often told students that I would be happy to write for them but that someone in a more permanent position might give their application packet a stronger appearance.

Enthusiasm and Foresight

Finally, demery1 writes that “enthusiasm, clearly expressed, is the key.” demery1 suggests particular phrases that signal such enthusiasm. As pstambler suggests, we should use our excitement about a candidate whom we can truly recommend to “to write the letter you wish your most influential referee had written for you.” Once you’ve spent the time to write this great letter, it’s also worth making sure, as allencar does, to save a copy. This will save you time if that same student needs a letter again in the future.

As I said at the beginning, this is only my distillation of what our very capable commenters wrote. But perhaps you didn’t have time last week during finals and grading to add your comments to the original post. If that’s the case, I invite you to add your own thoughts on how to write effective letters of recommendation to graduate school.

[Lead image by Flickr user Pink Sherbet Photography / Creative Commons licensed]

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