7.5 Writing letters of recommendation
One of my biggest pet peeves that I feel is important for me to address in this module is the whole idea of asking the candidate to write a draft of their own letter of recommendation. I remembered the writer turning the edit around quickly and I bothered to go back to my emails and look up the exact timing so I could put it in the letter. That sounds great at first pass, but as soon as you stop to think about it carefully, you wonder why the recommender used most enthusiastic as opposed to something like most talented or most accomplished or most brilliant.
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If you stay in academia, it won’t be long before you’re asked to write letters of recommendation for students, for postdocs, and even for colleagues. In this next module, I’m going to give tips for writing letters of recommendation. At the end, I’ll also gives some tips for asking for letters of recommendation for those of you who are still applying for positions. I’ve written many letters of recommendation during my time at Stanford. I have also served on graduate and medical admissions’ committees and have read hundreds of letters. As a letter writer, you need to be aware that if you cannot provide a strong letter either because you don’t know the person well, or because you have reservations about recommending the person, you are doing the candidate a favor by turning down his or her request. I have read letters of recommendation where the letter writer got the gender of the candidate wrong. This tells me that the letter writer didn’t remember the student. And really, this ought to reflect badly on the letter writer who was being dishonest, but it ends up reflecting badly on the candidate. So you may be doing the candidate a favor by politely declining their request. I do always take into account the competitiveness of what the person is applying for. Occasionally, there are things students are applying for that aren’t highly competitive, very small internal research or travel grants or an internal teaching assistant position. Where I know that most students are successful in their applications, I tend not to fret over these types of letters because the student just needs me to vouch for the fact that they are a Stanford student in good standing. I usually agree to those letters as long as the student did well in my class even if I don’t know them well. But if it’s something more competitive, I will turn students down if I don’t know them well enough. One of my biggest pet peeves that I feel is important for me to address in this module is the whole idea of asking the candidate to write a draft of their own letter of recommendation. This is common practice in some areas of academia. I was even giving a talk at a grant writing seminar and one of the speakers explicitly told the trainees that they would have to draft all of their own letters of recommendation and hand these to their letter writers. I strongly disagree with this practice. I personally think it’s unethical. Now, there may be others out there who disagree with me on this, but it seems to me that this practice undermines the whole point of letters of recommendation, which is to provide independent opinions on the candidate’s abilities. I personally feel that if you’re only willing to edit a student’s self draft of a letter, you are better off just politely declining to write that letter. Again, you may be doing the student a favor by turning them down. I was once reading through an application and I got a sense of deja vu reading the third letter of recommendation. I recognized some of the language. Well, I turned back to the second letter of recommendation and there were a couple of sentences that were an exact match between the two letters, and the letter writers were from entirely different organizations. I can only guess that the student provided the letter writers with a pre-drafted letter for them to work off of. I’ll tell you, I immediately dumped her application off the pile because that tells me the letter writers were just copying language she wrote about herself, and I have no idea whether they believe these things about her or not. Again, I don’t think it’s right or fair to ask a student to draft his or her own letter, and it’s doing the student a disservice. If you do agree to write the letter, ask the student to provide some additional information that will be helpful in drafting the letter such as their CV and specific information about what they are applying for. You need to make sure that you are addressing the qualities that would be relevant to this specific position or award. And of course, get a firm deadline from the student and mark it on your calendar. Usually the deadlines for these types of things are not flexible, so don’t miss the deadline. And the student should make it as easy as possible for you to submit the letter by providing the link or e-mail address or even a pre-address mailing envelope if that ever still applies. Make your letter look professional and like an old fashioned letter. Include the date, the address of the admissions or scholarship committee, and put it on letterhead. And don’t make the greeting something generic like to whom it may concern. If possible, address the letter to the specific person or committee who’s going to be reading the applications. You will figure out your own style for these letters. But I’m just going to share my template. You should always have an introduction that says how you know the candidate and for how long you’ve known the candidate. I always like to start by saying something like, “I am pleased to recommend Sally for admissions into Timbuktu Medical School”. Then I give the context of how I knew the candidate. Then I like to end the first paragraph with a one or two sentence overview of my opinion of the candidate. Once every few years, I have a candidate who I consider to be in a different league than most candidates I write letters for. There’s a certain type of language that I reserve for these top top tier candidates. In my 15 years at Stanford, I have written five of these letters. I can count them on one hand still, and five of these letters that contain this kind of highest praise something like, “She is one of the most brilliant and accomplished students that I have taught to date”. There is a hidden language to letters of recommendation. When I give praise like this, it is a signal to the readers that this is a candidate you don’t pass up. For my more typical letter of recommendation, I will write something strong but more measured. Maybe something like, “I’ve found her to be a diligent student and researcher. I’m confident that she would be an asset to your research team”.. I should note that I am going to use real examples from letters I’ve written throughout this module, but I’ve removed names and sometimes changed genders to protect identities. Of course in the letter, you want to use all your skills for good writing. I was recently reading an application and one of the letter writers just wrote such an engaging and beautifully written letter. I wanted to interview that candidate just because of that one letter. Also the length of the letter matters. Again, there is a hidden language of letters of recommendation and the length of the letter is one indication of the letter writer’s enthusiasm for a candidate. If I think a candidate is particularly strong, I always make sure to go on to a second page. When reading applications, if a candidate receives several short one page letters, I take that as a signal from the letter writers’ and rate that candidate less highly. In the body of the letter, you should address the qualities that are most important for the specific position or award that the person is applying for. Quantitative skills if the person is going to be working with numbers. Communication skills are important for most positions both speaking and writing. Ability to work well with others. Ability to take initiative. Ability to prioritize tasks. Creativity and ingenuity. Attributes of a good citizen such as do they go out of their way to help others? Have they volunteered a lot? Are they particularly engaged in what’s going on in the world? Obviously, if the candidate is weak in any of those areas, you need to point this out too. For pointing out weaknesses, you can still use positive language. You can say things like the person is working on that or has made progress in that area. The best thing you can do in your letter is to give specific memorable examples and stories. In writing, we call this show don’t tell. Don’t just say she meets deadlines. Give an example like, “I sent her requests for edits at 10 a.m. in the morning and she turned around the revision by 3 p.m. the same day” I actually used this in a letter. I remembered the writer turning the edit around quickly and I bothered to go back to my emails and look up the exact timing so I could put it in the letter. In my writing classes, I have students write profiles of each other during class and then read them out loud. And there was one student who wrote one that was so good, I still remember it to this day. So in her letter I wrote, “Her story stood out. It was funny witty and memorable. It’s the only one I remember vividly from the class”. Instead of just saying he’s a good citizen, I had a student who actually tutored another student in the class for free just out of the goodness of his heart, and I was able to put that story in the letter. “He is also a good citizen and goes out of his way to help others. For example, before he was a TA, he spent several hours a week helping one of our students who was struggling with the fall quarter course in statistics”.. All letters are somewhat inflated. We all want to be as positive as possible. So in the midst of all that praise, it’s your job as the letter writer to provide some guideposts to the review committee. It helps to quantify and compare. Was this student in the top 1%, top 5%, top 10%, and out of what group? I’ve written things like, “She is among the top 10% of Master’s students I have taught at Stanford”.. If relevant, point out extenuating circumstances like if the candidate has had to deal with major family issues or a challenging background. This can be particularly helpful if a student has a weaker academic record. As a reviewer, I value candidates who have overcome unusual obstacles or who have unconventional backgrounds, so share those details. When I’m reading letters, I’ve noticed that I do pay attention when writers bold or underline or italicize material to add emphasis, so that’s okay to do. In my letters, I also try to bring in the voices of other people. If other faculty members in my department think highly of a candidate, I like to mention that. Or if I co-taught a class with another instructor, I may ask that instructor to contribute a paragraph about the student. Sometimes I’ll quote other students. Once I had this great TA who got a lot of unsolicited praise from his students, and I quoted one of those emails. I wrote, “One of my students wrote this in an unsolicited email. You’ve probably heard already that so and so has been a fantastic TA”. So I was able to quote someone else saying how great this candidate was. A couple of cautions. Sometimes you get letters that focus too much on the letter writer or the class that the letter writer taught or the project the letter writer worked on with this student, the letter writer just seems to be filling space by telling me things that aren’t about the candidate’s strength and weaknesses. This is a red flag to me. Filling space with these kinds of details is a way to tell your reader that you don’t have much to say about the candidate and aren’t giving them a particularly high recommendation. So don’t talk too much about yourself in the letter unless that’s your intention. And it’s fine to highlight things from the candidate’s CV, but simply reading off the CV doesn’t add much to the candidate’s portfolio. It’s those specific examples and stories that you can add that make the person come to life. I once was writing a letter for this outstanding student who had an amazing list of awards and honors and experiences on her CV. But I had plenty to write about her without even mentioning those accolades. So when I came to the end of a letter, I just listed a few of the highlights from her CV. And then I realized that the fact that I had buried these at the end of the letter was telling. So after I listed those things, I wrote, “These are items I would have highlighted at the beginning of any other student’s recommendation letter. The fact that I nearly forgot to include this list speaks volumes”. And with a concluding paragraph that gives your final parting message, I often offer to be available if the committee has any additional questions. If I’m giving my very highest praise, I might say something like, “In some so-and-so is a star in all aspects. If there’s anything else I can do to support her application, please don’t hesitate to contact me”.. My more typical praise would be something like, “I highly recommend so-and-so for this position. If you have any further questions, I would be happy to expand further on my comments”. As I’ve mentioned, there is a hidden language to letters of recommendation. Most letters are somewhat inflated because no one wants to be negative. So choose your words carefully. There’s a hierarchy of praise. For example, someone might write, “Though not the top student in the class, he held his own among an extremely gifted and experienced group”.. Now that’s positive but it also has a negative in there. That’s telling readers that this is a good student but not an outstanding student. One step up from that would be, “He was one of the best students in my class of 50”. That’s telling readers that this is a very solid student but not the best I’ve encountered even in this one class. One step up from that, “He was the best student in my class of 50”. That’s telling readers that this is an outstanding student, but not the best I’ve ever encountered. Finally, if you say something like, “He is one of the best students I’ve had in my career at Stanford,” this is that language that you reserve for one student every few years. When I read letters of recommendation, I’m looking for these kinds of bold statements. Obviously, you need to be very honest and only reserve that language for the truly exceptional candidates. Your credibility and judgment are at stake. But this is the hidden language of letters of recommendation. All of these statements are positive, but they have subtle meanings to your reader. Just another example of subtle differences in language. You can see the subtle difference between, “I have confidence in her ability,” versus, “I have no doubt that she will go on to do first rate research”. The second statement is much stronger and which of those you choose tells the reader something. You can choose that weaker statement as a way to convey that this is a good but maybe not exceptional candidate. Or if I read something like, “She is the most enthusiastic student I’ve ever worked with”. That sounds great at first pass, but as soon as you stop to think about it carefully, you wonder why the recommender used most enthusiastic as opposed to something like most talented or most accomplished or most brilliant. Enthusiasm is a great quality, but you can have an enthusiastic student who is not an effective researcher or not a high performer. When I read a letter where the highest praise is that the person is enthusiastic or hardworking or a team player, those are all good qualities. But if that’s the highest praise the person receives, I will infer that this means that the recommendee is not a top performer. So just be aware of the subtle language of recommendations especially when you are new to writing them. Finally, if you are the one asking for letters, here are a few tips. First of all, be very respectful of your letter writer’s time. Don’t expect them to turn a letter around in a week, you need to give them at least several weeks. Second, choose your recommenders carefully. Pick people who know you well and who you think have a high opinion of you. I’ve seen applications where the applicant looked strong in many aspects, but they had one clearly negative letter that will sink your application. If someone declines to write you a letter, this is not the time to be persistent. Take that as a subtle hint that they do not feel capable of writing you a strong letter. That doesn’t mean they think poorly of you, it just may mean that they don’t know you well. If someone asks you to draft your own letter, I would advise you to move on to someone else. This is a good indication that the person isn’t going to take the time to write you a strong letter. As I’ve already said, I think it’s an unfair and unethical practice to ask candidates to draft their own letter so I would stay away from that. Finally, be respectful of your writer’s time by making everything as easy as possible for them. Be proactive. Give them information that will help them write the strongest letter possible. Offer to meet with them. Make sure that they don’t have to hunt around to find simple things like deadlines and instructions. Put those at their fingertips. Also it’s a good idea to be thinking ahead about letters. If you’re taking a class where you really like the professor and you’re acing the class, make a point to meet with the professor outside of class, ask for his or her advice. Go to office hours. Tell that person how much you are enjoying their class. Everyone likes a compliment. Make a connection with them so that they’ll remember you when you later ask for a letter. I like when students come to my office hours and ask for career or other advice, so don’t be shy about being a bit strategic and planning ahead.
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