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Letters of Reference

I've spent most of my spare time over the past few working on our graduate admissions process, reading application files. One thing that I've noticed this year, as opposed to others, is the surprising number of applications we received where one of the "letters" of recommendation was little more than a generic paragraph. I'm not going to be specific about how many I've seen, or about the "letters" themselves, obviously, but if I could implant a single command in the minds of all my colleagues (and I use this term in its most global and expansive sense--I'm not talking about my SU colleagues here) simultaneously, it would be:

Endow a Chair for Collin

If I had a second command, though, and I were restricted in my impact to the various application processes surrounding graduate school (and including job searches), it would be this:

It is kinder in the long run to say no than it is to write a crappy letter.

That's less a command, I suppose, than an attitude, but it's one that more than a couple of my colleagues should abide by. As much as some of these paragraphs are offset by the presence of two other, more thoughtful letters, those thoughtful letters are themselves somewhat offset by the third. And while I know that it's de rigeur to talk about how empty and generic letters of reference have become, there are clear and obvious ways to make them engaging, appealing, and revealing. In most cases, I don't read letters of recommendation as a means of making or breaking an application; I'm more interested in finding out as much as I can about the candidates in a more global sense, and a good letter can be far more informative than the even more generic and often more empty formal application documents.

In general, I don't care about the coded language (highly recommended vs. strongly recommended vs. my highest recommendation, etc.). I find it more helpful to know what a student's strengths are in the seminar room, whether or not s/he is prepared to read and write in a fairly intensive program, whether or not s/he is comfortable in the classroom. I even take a pretty fair approach to discussions of those things that a student may still need to work on--we don't expect them to be ready for the tenure-track just yet, and it's better to know up front that a student may need more attention to this aspect of their education rather than that one.

By the time I've made it through multiple statements, and writing samples, and teaching materials, I have a pretty solid sense of each application. And so I'm looking for the letters to round out that impression, to tell me things that the application materials can only imply. And I'm more inclined to trust a letter that can narrate a student's growth (and even struggle) than the generic recitation of buzzwordy synonyms for "good."

I don't fool myself into thinking that anything I have to say on the matter will affect change in this regard. All I can do is to try and internalize the lessons that I learn and relearn annually as part of this process (my 5th year now on the admissions committee), and put them to good use as I write letters for our students.

But the one suggestion I would make, to applicants everywhere who are lining up their own letters, is that it wouldn't hurt to put together a pre-application package for your references, containing a list of the places you're applying, your writing sample, any statement of purpose (this will be your job letter in many cases), and copies of the work that you completed with this person (and/or teaching materials from any classes they have observed). It wouldn't also hurt, and may even be polite, to solicit feedback from your references on these various materials. In other words, do it far enough in advance that you can both solicit and make use of their feedback. They may not read this package, but since you're putting it together eventually anyway, it can help freshen you in their minds.

In my more optimistic moments, I speculate that part of the reason behind some of the paragraph/letters we received was that the applicants' work may have faded out of the short term memory of some of these recommenders. In my more realistic moments, I suppose I have to face up to the fact that not all of my colleagues share my sense of perspective when it comes to these kinds of activities. An extra 30 minutes spent crafting a letter of recommendation, in the long run, costs us very little, but can make a huge difference in the futures of our students. If you're going to say yes when a student asks for a letter, it seems mean and petty to me to turn around and begrudge that student those 30 minutes later on.

I'm just saying.


okay, I'll kick in a buck or two for the chair.

but the letter thing. Having just come off writing a bunch of letters for people, that plea for an extra 30 minutes is a hard one. I work hard on letters -- they rarely take me less than an hour and often and usually more, depending on where someone is applying and for what. I do say NO to some people, if I cannot write a strong letter for wherever the person is applying. I work at talking about specifics, if I can. But holy cow I wish the requests for letters came with more space between them -- I'm not going to turn down writing for someone because I can write a good letter but because it's the fifth request for a letter with a similar due date.

Having been on the reading side plenty of time, too, though, it is with the utmost enthusiasm that I concur with your description of what good letters do.

Yeah, I know that they usually cluster up in a way that can make it tough. We suggest that our students on the market contact their letter writers as early as possible (May or June) before they're on the market. Sometimes I want to wait until the fall, so I can see as much of the dissertation as possible, but usually, I can put together a pretty comprehensive letter together over the summer, as long as I know about it well in advance...


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