Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Want a letter of recommendation?

I'm planning to "go live" with this note about recommendation letters in a week or so. Gonna post it on my homepage. Now I'm just taking some time to let this draft percolate and circulate.

I'll admit, it's a lengthy document. But after writing scores of rec letters over the past 12 years, I figured I should offer some consistent advice to students who may one day ask me to write for them.

And, honestly, while I don't want a student to be turned off by my mini-dissertation on the topic, anyone who'd scan this and conclude, "I don't want that guy to write me a letter," would save us both plenty of grief by making that decision before I begin.

So, here's the draft.

Any thoughts? Recommendations? Concerns?


Looking for a Letter of Recommendation from Andrew F. Wood? Please read this first.

Rec Letter Status

[Note to blog-readers: The beginning of my rec letter document will begin with a status update, featuring one of these two options.]

• Able to receive write a letter with two weeks notice.


• Unable to accept letter requests at this time. Please check back [at a time to be noted, eg. "Please check back in April."].

Executive Summary

While I'll cover all this material in more detail below, here are the highlights: I am delighted to write letters of recommendation for worthy students, but I can only write those letters under the following circumstances:

(1) You have earned an A- or above in our most recent class, or you have served as a Peer Mentor during my service as program director.

(2) You email me sufficiently detailed information about your personal and/or professional expertise that I have already observed.

(3) You provide adequate time (at least two weeks) for me to write a strong draft.

(4) You ask at a time when I am not already overwhelmed with other commitments (see Rec Letter Status, above).

Those are the quick bits. Now for some context and necessary instructions. Please read this entire document if you wish to proceed in seeking a rec letter.

Let's start with some background:

I know the value of a solid rec letter. Indeed, I depended on original, specific, and well-written rec letters when I was a student, and I cheerfully accept my responsibility to help you in turn. It's good karma. That said, there's much about writing a decent rec letter that most students don't know. Let me give you some background from a faculty member's perspective.

We'll start with time. Your rec letter will consume, at a minimum, about two hours of my time. That includes time necessary to review your materials, write an initial draft, seek editorial feedback, and complete follow-up revision. Thereafter I may also receive requests to revise that initial letter for you as future job opportunities arise. Each such request is likely to cost about 15 minutes more of my time, which adds up quickly when you consider how many students seek letters and subsequent revisions each semester.

Of course, this presumes that your future employer only requires a standard rec letter. Sometimes they create all sorts of short-answer forms and idiosyncratic check-boxes ("Is this student in the 90th percentile? The 95th percentile"?) in their efforts to circumvent the tendency of some writers to produce meaningless boilerplate recommendations. For them, the practice makes sense. For me, the result is another imposition of time on top of the all-purpose letter I'm likely to write for you anyway.

We both know that a minimum expenditure of two hours and a little hassle is a small price to pay for the opportunity to help you get a scholarship, a seat in a grad program, or a job in this competitive market. But please understand: The time I dedicate to your letter must be added to my already packed schedule. My university does not reduce my other obligations of teaching, publication, or administration when I write your recommendation, nor do I receive any payment for this additional work. The only remuneration I receive (or expect) is the satisfaction of knowing I could help you.

Having agreed that rec letter-writing is a time-consuming but necessary task, let's tackle the next question:

Can I write a letter for you?

I can write you a detailed and persuasive letter of recommendation and commit to revising that recommendation for future job opportunities if you meet each of the following criteria.

• Read this document in its entirety.

• Earn nothing less than an A- in the most recent class (six week or longer) you've taken with me, or work as a Peer Mentor for one full semester during the period of my service as program director.

• Request your letter in sufficient time to allow me to fit this assignment within my schedule (two week minimum).

• Send a complete request via email.

Please note: On occasion I must decline rec letter requests, even those offering reasonable deadlines, during periods when other commitments overwhelm my schedule. If I accept your request, I will complete your letter on time. If I decline your request, chances are that I'm working to fulfill previously made commitments.

OK, assuming you meet these criteria...

Here's the most important requirement for me to write you a letter.

Help me write about your qualities that I know best.

How does that work? Let's presume that you are building an application composed of several letters and (typically) a personal statement. You are responsible for arranging those components into a package that integrates your varied dimensions into a strong candidacy. My job is to contribute my personal and professional credibility to evaluating one relatively limited aspect of your application.

From this perspective, it makes little sense for me to write about your off-campus volunteer efforts or your dedication to some other personal activity unless we both agree that I know you well enough to make such an assertion. It's better that I focus on areas where I have some expertise. Therefore I'll only write about what I know.

How well I know you is an issue, though. Have you participated actively in class, or have you been mostly quiet? Have we discussed your goals during office hours or have I rarely seen you outside of class? Have you made an effort to stand out in some other way, or are you essentially a stranger to me? It's my job to get to know my students, but it's your job to help me know you better by exceeding minimal standards, by excelling rather than merely doing OK.

So, before you request a letter, review our interaction history. Search for individual emails, essay responses, and personal conversations. These will provide the kinds of evidence necessary for me to write a compelling letter. Once you gather these materials, you're ready for the next step:

Identify two or three specific, observable traits that demonstrate your excellence

Think about those traits that demonstrate your personal and/or professional persona. Here, I'm thinking about traits like "creative," or "hard-working," or "passionate." I'm also thinking of more purely professional traits such as excellence in research or organization or writing. There are many, many others from which you may choose. You need only identify two or three traits and support them with evidence.

For each character trait, develop at least two specific, observable examples from our shared experiences. To illustrate, if you report being "a strong writer," share a comment I made about your writing on one of your essays, or describe an office hour visit in which I commented on your promising prose. Avoid generalities - and do not write lengthy narrative sentences. Stick to facts and let me do the wordsmithing.

Remember, each trait requires at least two specific examples. More examples are always better, but stick with things that I have seen, and remember: You're trying to set yourself apart from the competition. Where do you shine? Once you review your traits for specificity and the reasonable likelihood that I have observed them, you're ready to share your request with me.

Don't forget the necessary details

In your email, include the following information:

• Each class (including semester/year and grade) you've had with me (not required if you were a Peer Mentor during my service as program director).

• Two or three personal or professional traits with at least two specific supporting examples per trait.

• Contact information and website addresses (if available) for each recipient of your requested recommendation.

• Information about the job/scholarship and/or opportunity for which you seek a recommendation.

• Indication of whether I should send the letter(s) directly or provide them to you.

• Deadline for each letter recipient.

Here's what I do

I'll review your email-request and determine whether I can write a letter for you. Even if the answer is no, I'll reply as promptly as I can. If the answer is yes, I'll inform you about any other materials I need: clarification of your points, the addition of a resume (rarely a requirement; there's no need to send one with your request), or other information about your letter recipients. I'll then confirm my deadline and complete a first draft by that date. Thereafter I'll seek your feedback on that draft, inviting you to comment on ways the letter can be improved. I'll appreciate specific and direct feedback (catching me in a typo won't embarrass me; I'll be grateful for your help). Finally I'll submit the revised letter as you direct, either to you or to your selected recipients. I'll also keep a copy of your letter in case you need me to amend it for subsequent job opportunities.

That's it. Well, almost...

One final thought: It was kind of a pain to read this, huh? It was no picnic writing it, either. But that truth illustrates how seriously I take letters of recommendation. When it comes to your potential letter, our shared goal of your success is surely worth a little bit of time and hassle. So let me know if I can serve you by writing a rec letter. And if you have any questions about this document, feel free to ask.

Good luck!

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