Issues in Letters of Recommendation: How Not to Suck in Graduate School

SR Shaw

I put out a poorly worded Tweet last week that generated more attention and heat than makes me comfortable. Typically, attention on such an important topic is good and fine, but the Tweet in question is misleading (accurate, but still misleading). Here is the Tweet:

Just read about 60 applications to grad school. Letter writers who say applicants are cute, petite, lovely, sweet, appropriately dressed, has a great smile, has a supportive spouse--I'm judging you. Do better for these people.

11:17 AM - 1 Feb 2018

Here are the misleading points that I regret:

·       I read over 400 pages of letters of recommendation in three days. Then I cherry-picked eight or nine words and phrases that seemed a bit icky. These are not common words and phrases in the letters I read.

·       Twitter is a brief format that does not allow context to be presented. These phrases are presented with no context. Then the outrage machine of Twitter can be cranked up, context assumed by the reader, and results can be interpreted in a way that suits the theme and agenda of the reader.

·       I do not feel I could add any contextual information because I did not want to break the implied confidentiality of letter writers. I appreciate and respect the time and energy that all letter writers put in to this process. Their efforts support our program and support new applicants. Shaming or otherwise criticizing people who volunteer their time and energy does not support or improve the process.

·       Some of these words are discipline specific. These letters are for a school psychology program. Words like kind, generous, caring, thoughtful, and compassionate are considered positive characteristics for potential psychologists of any gender. Not only do these words have something of a gendered component, they are not far in meaning from clearly gendered words such as sweet, lovely, and nurturing.

·       The program for these letters has 137 applicants for eight positions in the 2018 cohort. I will be accepting one or zero students under my supervision. I read these letters carefully. I am not sure I read letters of recommendation as carefully in the past.

·       All of letters containing the words that made me feel somewhat uncomfortable and elicited outrage were extremely positive. The writers of these letters wrote at least two pages describing the leadership, scholarship, energy, experience, innovation, and other important characteristics that support admissions to a graduate program. In nearly every case, the offending words were in the final paragraph where testimonials concerning the real human characteristics of the applicant were described. The language in this final paragraph became problematic.

What to do?

Because the language bothered me and apparently about 800,000 other people, some action is warranted. I respectfully choose not to employ some of the suggestions by commenters. They will not be publicly shamed, reprimanded, stabbed with cocktail forks, reported to their universities, murdered, or otherwise be taught a lesson. Power is the ability to get things done. I have power. I will use power to address this issue.

I am not big on outrage, but I am big on solving problems. Here is what I have done so far: reported my concerns to our equity officer, who has set up an opportunity to work with our Associate Provost (Equity and Academic Policies) and also a professor in Law to find solutions; spoke with our graduate program director to put this item on the agenda in order to address discipline-specific approaches to educate letter writers; and I am writing this blog post to provide my perspective on letters of recommendation that I hope is helpful. I also plan on working with our faculty development unit (Teaching and Learning Services) to publicize and expand their instruction of faculty members on letter writing. There is a culture that needs to be changed. These are small contributions, but it has only been 48 hours.

Writing Effective Letters of Recommendation

As always on this blog, I am not an expert in this area and these are only my ideas. For those looking for more expert information on how to write effective letters of recommendation, I recommend these sites and documents as good places to start. There are many more resources available.

https://www.thebalance.com/academic-recommendation-letters-2062959

https://theprofessorisin.com/2016/09/07/how-to-write-a-recommendation-letter/

https://www.mrc-cbu.cam.ac.uk/documents/equality/HHMI_WriteReference.pdf

https://www.pace.edu/career-services/sites/default/files/files/pdf/writing-letters-of-recommendation.pdf

https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/982/02/

Writing Letters

I write letters for 45 to 55 different students per year. Given that students often need multiple letters for multiple job opportunities, internship sites, grant applications, and such — there are approximately 200 documents per year from me. There are other faculty members in my program who write more. It is extraordinarily time-consuming, but I enjoy the process of writing letters. I am afraid that I do not follow many of the recommendations here for letter writers.

I appreciate that requesting letters of recommendation is difficult for students. I always want to be helpful to their cause. If I cannot write a letter that will substantially help their cause, then I will tell them that I cannot write a letter that helps them. I will not write a poor letter or a lukewarm letter. I understand those who feel a responsibility to warn colleagues of a poor student, but I do not do that. If I agree to write the letter, then I am all in. I will write an honest letter that does everything possible to attain the goal for the student.

I only write what I see. The student may be awesome in many ways, but I only write about my personal experiences with the student. The value of letters of recommendation is that they go beyond the CV and transcript. I have no desire to rehash the CV.

I typically do not use boilerplate information for letters. There are small things such as the details of the activities of the research lab or a specific class that I have taught. I try to write an original letter for everybody. I have tried boilerplate writing in the past, but it never seems to read well.

I do not ask students to write a letter that I will sign. That is not a letter of recommendation. Of course, people are busy. When people say that they are busy, what they are saying is that something else is a higher priority. If it is not that important to you, then do not write the letter.

I attempt to be transparent. If there is enough time and the students wants to see it, then I like students to see what I have written about them before I send it out. Mostly, I ask them to look for typos or factual inaccuracies. I will now ask students to also look for sexist or insensitive language. I have sent letters out without them reading it, but students can read letters of recommendation at any time. I write so many letters and documents, that it is always wise to have someone else review the letters for typos. No one is more motivated than the subject of the letter.

A framework helps with the efficiency of writing letters of recommendation. I divide a letter into eight sections.

1.       Why I am writing this letter, how long I have known the applicant, and the context of the relationship between me and the applicant.

2.       Describing the top accomplishment of the applicant. Describing exactly what the applicant did and the role they played in achieving this top accomplishment.

3.       The professional goals of the applicant and how a positive outcome by the target of the letter will help the person achieve those goals. The logic here is that the applicant has a thoughtful, ambitious, and planful approach to achieving career goals.

4.       Describe the process that the person is following to achieve future goals. What are they doing now, what are plans for the immediate future, what are the plans for the long-term future, and what is the trajectory of their work.

5.       Lesser accomplishments. This is often a laundry list of professional presentations, publications, and general everyday awesomeness.

6.       Clinical skills and experience. Sometimes this section is moved up to the second section (when the student is applying for a field placement or internship or clinical job). This relates to training, experiences, and special expertise in clinical skills. Special attention is given to the applicant’s development of unusual skills that the applicant has taken the initiative to develop.

7.       Citizenship. I want to indicate the role of the applicant in the research lab or the classroom. Most often, this involves discussions of leadership, creativity, initiative, and team approaches. This is the danger paragraph when it comes to sexist language. Review it carefully, because this paragraph will be read closely.

8.       I keep open all contacts. Readers are welcome to contact me and I invite questions or additional requests for more information.

This is not too hard. I find this process easy simply because my students are wonderfully skilled, good people to work with, and I truly believe that they deserve the job, experience, or funding. I believe that my sincere enthusiasm and belief that the students deserve to achieve their goals comes through in the letter. I do not use flowery or exaggerated language. Their talents and accomplishments speak for themselves. If the letter is hard to write, then I probably should not be writing it.

Reading Letters

I read a lot of letters. Admissions letters, letters for funding, and all other forms of letters of people applying for limited spaces or resources. I only focus on a few things and generally ignore the rest.

1.       In my world, the best predictor of future behaviour is past behaviour. I want to know what this person has done. I do not care about their goals, dreams, plans, or anything else. What have they done. This is, by far, the most important aspect.

2.       I want evidence of leadership, initiative, and creativity. I am a trainer of professionals. Those people cannot be passive or passengers. I want a future professional.

3.       Many negative things do not bother me. There can always be disagreements or relationship issues, even with a letter writer. That said, any hint of laziness, treating other people poorly, or ethical complaints is a major problem. I do not expect applicants to be perfect, but I want evidence of professionalism.

4.       Is there any evidence that they do things for others? Selflessness and support of peers is far more valuable than ambition.

5.       What skills, abilities, or characteristics does the applicant have that will contribute to our program or research lab?

6.       Evidence of enthusiasm for growth. I want to know what the applicant has done to take the initiative for their own personal and professional growth. Sometimes, I need to look for a hint.

7.       How did the applicant manage or work around difficult times or other challenges?

I really do not care about many of the adjectives that are used in letters. Whether they are called a fine student or the greatest student in the history of civilization, that simply does not matter much. Sexist language in a letter does not really affect my decision of the applicant. I look for specific items. Everything else is extraneous or of minimal value to me.

Let us be mindful in how we communicate on behalf of students. We are their second-best advocates and bear significant responsibility for their success. Letters that are focused, clear, and describe an accomplished professional are most effective.