Reference letters: a letter-writer’s views

I’m now nearing the end of what has been a very busy reference-letter-writing season for graduate and medical schools. I’ve been writing letters both for McGill students (some of whom I know extremely well) and for Wayne students (who I’ve known for four months, tops) and also serving on my department’s graduate committee reading admissions applications and the reference letters that come with them. For me, writing reference letters is, if not actually enjoyable, a part of my job that is more than just a duty, but something I care about doing well, and the (hopeful) result is something I care about a hell of a lot. I also (humbly?) think I’m damn good at it.

A recent conversation with a friend has got me thinking about different practices and traditions with regards to the practice of letter-writing. We don’t talk enough about the nuts and bolts of the process, particularly not in public venues. Obviously, I am not at liberty to discuss any specific contents of any of these letters, but I think a general discussion of some of the issues might be helpful to students who may find this post, and to my colleagues for whom this should be a fairly enjoyable part of the job: helping their students move forward in their chosen professions. Please bear in mind that everything below reflects my practice, but others may well behave differently.

The Talk: Firstly, everyone who wants me to write them a reference letter for grad school gets to hear from me about the harsh realities of grad school. I even have a workshop that I give on that subject. The one thing I don’t do is give a blanket ‘Don’t go to grad’, although some of my colleagues follow that plan. I can’t fault their intentions, but my view is that ‘Do as I say not as I do’ is pretty much always hypocritical and that in any case, these students are adults and are more likely to be influenced by information than blanket moral pronouncements. But even so, no one gets away without hearing that academia is a tough gig. I also do try to mention that they aren’t crazy for wanting to go, and that intellectual life can be very rewarding – I personally found grad school to be a very relaxing period of my life – but I don’t hide the downsides of penury, anxiety and uncertainty.

Saying No: I sometimes say no to a student who asks for a letter, usually under one of three conditions:
a) Students who come to me very shortly before the due date. Guys, I usually do make an effort for, but realistically I want a minimum of a week’s notice, with two to four weeks preferred. If I have a letter already written for you and you know that, then obviously a short turnaround is possible, but otherwise, don’t expect me to be happy.
b) Students I just don’t remember at all. Usually the student knows I may not know them well and mentions that in their email or in person, giving me a way out. I don’t even know why they bother, although most commonly it’s students who major in some other, larger field and for whom my anthro seminar was one of the only classes where they interacted with a faculty member.
c) The third category is the hardest: students who I don’t think are cut out for grad school. Usually rather than saying no outright, I will say something to the effect that I wouldn’t be able to write them a strong letter, or suggest programs that may be more suitable for the student.

Information: I want as much information as the student is able to give me to allow me to write the best letter possible. At minimum I want a transcript, letter of intent, and CV, with a writing sample if I don’t already know the student’s writing well, and GRE/test scores if relevant. If some aspect of a student’s record is substandard, I can (and will) ‘write around’ that issue: not ignore it, but frame it in its context. Also, a student may have experiences that I may not know about, but which can be used to really beef up my letter. I can’t think of any case where a student has provided information that has made my letter worse than it otherwise would be.

Content: I always try to be as specific as possible in every aspect of the letter. I believe that the genre of reference letters (and that’s what it is -a literary genre) is tricky because so many letters are nearly-identically praise-filled, as everyone tries to get their students in the best places possible. Specificity is my solution to this problem: the more facts I can include, the better. Basically, I write on the assumption that the reader needs something memorable which could be used in the student’s favour in a committee meeting, to separate the student from the pack of mediocrities out there.

Superlatives: Although I despise the casual superlative, combined with specificity, superlatives can be used to great effect. Here’s where my anal-retentiveness comes into play. While there may only be one ‘best student in her class’ or ‘best student I’ve ever taught’, there are more ‘best in X course’ and even more ‘best essay out of X essays’. Or, if a student works full-time in addition to high intellectual performance, ‘most industrious’ might be brought into play (with supporting evidence, of course). Here we get back to the information issue

Length: Most of my letters are one single-spaced page for undergraduates. There have been a couple of exceptions for students I know especially well or whose records demand a fuller accounting, but realistically, one page is usually going to be enough. Given the limits of a committee’s time, long letters can conceal relevant information rather than highlighting it.

Customization: I would be lying if I said that I wrote a different letter for each student for each school, but I customize the school name and program that the person is applying to. Also, if the student is applying to two very different programs (e.g. in different disciplines), I will have two variants to encompass that fact. If a student has given me specific information as to the people they might want to work with, it only takes me a moment to add a sentence with specific names to my letter.

Writing My Own Letters: The other day, a friend remarked to me that it was customary in her department for referees to ask students to write their own letters and bring them to be signed. What the bloody hell kind of practice is that? While I understand that letter-writing can be a chore, I consider it to be profoundly unethical for students to be asked to write their own letters (not that I blame students who agree to do this – they are obviously not free to say no). Am I really strange to find this practice so disturbing?

Student Input: I will say, however, that I welcome student input into letters, particularly with regard to correcting errors or mentioning specific facts they would like me to have in the letter. After all, I don’t know every aspect of every student’s life, or why exactly this program is important to them. While I won’t censor my opinions or feel bound by a particular request, I do take suggestions very seriously.

Seeing Letters: I have a standing and explicit policy that before I send any letter (or after, or whenever), I will show any student the letter I have written for them. This not only ensures that I don’t make any stupid errors, but also (I hope) gives people peace of mind as to what is being said. So much of the grad admissions process is opaque, and my policy is intended to alleviate any fears – and of course, if the student doesn’t care to use my letter, they know exactly on what basis they make that decision.

Online Forms: I love the fact that many institutions now allow me to upload a PDF of my letter directly to the institution, bypassing the old ‘signed over the seal’ snail-mail method. I even have an electronic letterhead and signature to make it all fancy and official-looking. And they mostly send confirmation emails afterwards so I know it got there. And I certainly don’t mind having to fill out online check-boxes of the ‘top 5% – top 10% – top 25% – top 50% – oh god don’t admit this one’ variety. What I do object to is institutions that force you to rewrite your comments to fit a set of online questions (often with character limits). The process is annoying enough already without making faculty spend more time dividing up a perfectly good letter into little chunks, then getting anxious about whether we did it right.

Results: I was commenting to a friend the other day that if students knew how anxious and nervous we, as faculty, get about our students getting into grad school, they would either react with disbelief or laughter. And I suppose maybe some faculty just don’t care, but I’m young and idealistic and dammit, I do care a hell of a lot. So when I write a letter and then I don’t even hear where a student has been accepted, much less where they’re going, I get a little peeved. I don’t need a hand-written thank you note – email or Facebook or whatever will do quite fine. But I do think it’s rude not to let me know what the results of my efforts (and theirs) were.

So that’s it! Any issues I have missed? Any pet peeves or quirks? Am I way off base on some of these points?

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4 Comments

  1. Writing My Own Letters: The other day, a friend remarked to me that it was customary in her department for referees to ask students to write their own letters and bring them to be signed. What the bloody hell kind of practice is that? While I understand that letter-writing can be a chore, I consider it to be profoundly unethical for students to be asked to write their own letters (not that I blame students who agree to do this – they are obviously not free to say no). Am I really strange to find this practice so disturbing?

    One of my references for getting into that one-year program asked me to do this. I wrote the letter, and he just signed it. I thought it was kind of odd; but then, he wasn’t an academic, and I doubt he’s asked for such recommendations often, if at all. So I guess he wasn’t worried about his reputation in that regard. (And of course, I completely deserved all the nice things I ended up saying about myself. ^_^ )

  2. Charles: I suppose I can understand that someone who is really unfamiliar with academic letter-writing might feel uncomfortable working in that genre. I think it would have been far more ethical, however, for him to write a draft letter and show it to you and if you had some sort of problem with it, to make corrections at that point. Not that you don’t deserve all those compliments, of course! :)

  3. I tend to agree: but frankly, I think he just didn’t want to be bothered with writing the letter himself. That, and he may have been unsure what I’d expect him to say, so it may have seemed safer to let me write it and check it over afterwards. That way I couldn’t complain he’d damned me with faint praise! My other references wrote the letter themselves.

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