Monday, January 21, 2013

‘Tis the Season for Letters of Recommendation

Lisa Clark Diller

Actually, most of my letters were written last fall, but in late December as I labored over several of them while also trying to enjoy my holidays, I wondered how other people approach the crafting of rec letters.  Since I only teach undergraduates, I don’t have a sense of what graduate schools are really looking for.  I spend a good bit of time at conferences trying to pick the brains of people I meet who sit on admissions committees.  What needs to be included in letters of reference?  What attributes in general are people in grad programs looking for in their graduate students?

I also write many letters of reference for law and medical schools, as our history majors are more likely to go into those fields than they are into social science or humanities programs.  But the letters for the latter types of degrees require more crafting, in my opinion.  It seems like there is some sort of mystery involved in this process—we weren’t taught how to do it in our doctoral studies and yet I have to write dozens per year, whether for internships, jobs or further education.  I sometimes wonder if I’m the only one suffering from a sense of “referee-inferiority.”  I know that these letters can sometimes make a huge difference in whether a student makes it into a program and I want to do justice by them.

Here are some of the specific tactics I’ve taken, often shaped by conversations with those who are in charge of reading such letters of recommendation.

1. Be sure you want to recommend this person for this program of study.  If students ask me to write them a letter, I usually make them come in to talk with me or give me a phone call, at the least.  I want to know that they have given thought to whether this is a good fit for them.  I may try to steer them in another direction or talk about the challenges of choosing these particular schools or areas of study given their own experiences/skill sets.  In a few extreme cases, I have told the student that I don’t think I’m a good recommender for them with this particular area of study or that I wouldn’t be able to give the needed information and so they should choose someone else.

2. Know the student’s experiences, academic and otherwise, outside of their interactions with the recommender. It helps to integrate these with the needed academic skills.  I like to talk about students who were leaders in the history club and helped shape the academic social climate in the classroom and how that connects with their interest in, say, politics and human rights.

3. Be specific about their academic skills.  I think it helps to say what papers/reading they have done for the recommender. I often don’t remember what they wrote for me, and so I ask them to remind me.  I am not often able to say what parts of the paper were stronger or weaker, but I try to as often as my memory will allow me to.  I also like to say how they contributed to the class discussions.

4. Talk about their disposition for graduate work.  I have been told that people in grad programs want to know someone has a “teachable” attitude and is amenable to criticism from mentors.  I hadn’t thought to include this in the past, but I’m increasingly doing so.  I also like to talk about their ability to balance work and study and how well they will use the knowledge they are gaining in this program.  They aren’t just studying for a master’s in history because they don’t have anything else to do with their time. They are going to be worth investing in.  I like to discuss how well they work independently and how good they are at tracking down sources on their own as well as how committed they are to the drafting process in their writing.

5. Connect their experiences and interests with the programs they are applying for.  I don’t have time to do all the research for these specific programs, but if I can talk to the student, I ask them what it is about the program that fits their interests best and I make notes of that so I can include it in the letter, if it is appropriate.  For instance, for an interdisciplinary program, I might highlight their long commitment to more than one major/minor.  Do they bring needed language skills or international studies to the table?  Perhaps an internship or community service or something else might show that the emphasis of the school they are applying to is reflected in their own academic history.

6. Extras.  This may just be something I need to do and maybe it isn’t as appropriate as I think it is.  I was told once that I should “show off” my own academic credentials if I think it is necessary.  I teach at a small Christian college and I don’t have a long publishing resume.  My students don’t have a lot of name recognition from their university to help them in their applications for grad school.  So sometimes, if I’m writing a letter to a top tier school, I’ll say “As someone who also graduated from a small sectarian undergrad and went on to do my doctoral work at the University of Chicago, I have an idea of the kinds of skills needed to transition out of an obscure undergrad to a top research program.  I am very confident that Jane Doe has what she needs to do the work required at your program.” 

I would be really interested in having feedback from our readers out there. What do you think works in letters of recommendation? Have I included things that you think I shouldn’t (such as touting my own credentials)?  If you read letters of recommendation, what are you looking for?


Randall said...

Loved this post. It's something I think about quite a bit, but seldom if ever talk to anyone about. Great questions and suggestions.

I think it probably doesn't hurt to say something about your own pedigree. An in a short sentence or two it doesn't stand out.

(A side note. One of my last students stateside got into Harvard Law! Thrilled about that. Doubt my letter mattered like his LSATs did. This student blew the doors off the test.)

Lisa Clark Diller said...

Test scores are great, but I got a nice letter (form letter of course) from Duke last year after our second history major in 3 years got into their law school. They said (very nicely) that they got 6000 applications for 200 positions and letters of rec are really crucial to making those hard decisions between great candidates. So, don't discount your letter, Randall!

hcr said...

This is really helpful. Nice to know I'm not the only one who struggles with these!

It has come back to me that what really matters in a letter is detail. As you say, put in what they argued in that great essay, and why their evidence was significant. From my point of view, that also gives you some room to make it clear that someone you had to write for (because no one else would-- I agree that you shouldn't recommend someone you really don't think is top-notch, but sometimes you have to) is not, necessarily a good fit for graduate work.

When I started in this profession, there were coded words that tagged the strength of your recommendation. It seems like the significance of those words has been lost, and it IS a loss. Now it seems like every letter swears the individual is the best thing since sliced bread-- and you can get six of those letters from the same recommender in the same pool. Hence the importance of details, I guess.

Here's a rant, though: I get irritated by some public universities that clearly have a rising star on their hands, and have to document that person's status every time s/he moves up even a baby notch on the ladder. I can think of two times I wanted to start my letter with: "Are you &^%$ serious that you need my approval to promote one of the best scholars in the profession from level E to level D?!?" (I didn't. At least not in the final draft!)

OK, off to watch the inauguration!

Randall said...

Students could use some advice on the etiquette of asking for the letter. That's always a tough one.