Posts Tagged ‘Letters of Recommendation’

Current and former students often ask me to write them letters of recommendation for various things and I typically say yes. As I’ve said in the past, when writing these letters it is helpful to know what students are saying in any required statements so that I can ensure my own statements support those points. The only problem with this is that students often provide me with these materials after they have been submitted to the organization in question, even though I would classify the quality of their work in these statements as rough at best.

One might think that students who are attempting to obtain an internship, scholarship, or entrance to a graduate program might put more effort into the required personal statements than they would a brief class assignment, but this does not appear to be the case. This is not entirely the fault of students, since most of them are not trained in this form of writing and they might not feel like they have a go-to person to answer their questions (unlike a class assignment). Nevertheless, they should still assume that things like proofreading and the use of paragraphs and specific examples will strengthen their arguments that they should receive an internship, scholarship, or entrance to a graduate program.

As a writer of letters of recommendation, low-quality personal statements also put me in a difficult position. Obviously, I want to support my students and help them become successful. On the other hand, it is difficult to make a strong argument that a student was among my best or was a good writer or whatever other seemingly-arbitrary characteristics institutions say they care about when the student’s personal statement looks like it was written in fifteen minutes and then edited by a cat sitting on the student’s keyboard. In the future, I might need to request that in the future students provide me with a draft of their personal statements and allow me to help guide them through the process of revising and editing it as a condition of writing a recommendation.

I might not have the code that will allow all of their applications to be successful, but I’ve got to be a better editor than their cats.

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I see letters of recommendation as a necessary evil, meaning that I recognize them as an important part of my job but often feel unsure when I am writing them about whether I am actually helping my students or not. Upon obtaining my job I was not given the code, so I wouldn’t mind abolishing them. As long as they are around (and students can help me out a bit), though, I guess I will need to keep semi-arbitrarily ranking students in terms of their writing skills, leadership ability, maturity, and any number of other things.

Recently, though, I came across a recommendation form that strained the limits of my ability for judgment. A student of mine was applying for a position at a nonprofit organization with a Christian orientation. Apparently, when applying for a job at a Christian organization no topic is off limits. Among other things, the evaluation form asked me about the student’s reputation on campus, personal appearance, sense of humor, drinking habits, spiritual focus, servitude to Christ, and whether he or she is a “serving-type person” and exemplifies a Christian life. What the hell is a “serving-type person”?

Some of these questions allowed me to respond with “I don’t know,” but others did not. In my written comments I tried to elucidate the candidate’s academic strengths and weaknesses but I’m not sure how my non-answers will be seen by the hiring committee. Maybe they only want students who talk about their servitude to Christ in every class. Since this student was thankfully not that type of person, I guess that I had no choice but to leave the judgment to God.

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Although my semester has ended, student requests for my time have not. One of my advisees recently asked for a letter of recommendation two days before the recommendation deadline, which brought back memories of my own undergraduate days. When I was talking to my undergraduate mentor about applying to graduate programs he gave me some advice that I think benefits everybody in the application process. While this advice is somewhat applicable to graduate students as well, since I deal solely with undergrads I also decided that it is time for a companion to Fabio’s Grad Skool Rulz. As a result, I give you the first of my Rulz for Undergradz*:

When you ask a professor for a letter of recommendation, you should provide the following information:

  • The application deadline
  • A brief statement about why you want to do whatever you are applying for. If your application requires a personal statement, a rough draft of that statement is acceptable for this purpose.
  • A list of the courses you have taken with the professor and the grades that you earned in those courses.
  • Your overall (and, if relevant or substantially different, major) GPA

If the recommendation can be submitted electronically, you should provide all of the above in a single e-mail along a relevant link to the electronic submission system. If a paper recommendation must be submitted, you should provide a hard copy of the information above in a folder with any recommendation forms and an envelope. You should also provide instructions about how the recommendation should be submitted. If the professor is supposed to send the application directly, you should provide a stamped, addressed envelope. If the professor is supposed to return the recommendation to you in a signed envelope, you should arrange a date and time to meet and pick up your recommendation.

By following these instructions, the process of writing recommendations is streamlined for professors, which can only help their impressions of the students they are recommending.

*The only problem with providing Rulz for Undergradz on a sociology blog is that most undergrads don’t read sociology blogs. To counteract this problem, print this post and hand it out to your advisees. Tell them that it came from the internet and they will be so impressed that one or two of them are bound to follow these guidelines, which should save you at least as much time as it took you to print the post and hand it out.

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