The Pros and Cons of writing letters of recommendation

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The first time I was asked to write a letter of recommendation for a student, I was thrilled. Finally I had an opportunity to write a letter for someone else, rather than endlessly requesting letters from my own faculty advisers.

Although my own mentors were always generous in writing on my behalf, I was nervous asking them for letters of recommendation, sensing that it would be a burden on their time. As a professor, I started to view letter writing differently.

In my first years as a faculty member, I wanted to make sure my own students were comfortable asking me for letters, so I would go out of my way in class to say that. I felt, and still feel, that it is part of our job and our responsibility to our students. As Jason Jones wrote in a September 2011 post in The Chronicle, writing recommendation letters can be “very fulfilling, as you look back over a student’s work, and reflect on the fact that they trust you to help them to further their goals.”

In recent years, however, the number of letters I have been asked to write has increased substantially, a function of the large number of former students one “accumulates” over the course of more than a decade of teaching. The economy may also be a factor, as many students are choosing to return to graduate school rather than face a tough job market.

Between early October and late January, I find that I am working on one or more recommendation letters every night, either starting a letter or finishing one. I work on them at night as I rarely have time to focus on them during the day.

During those months, I am always thankful for those fields—such as public health, law, and medicine—that allow a single letter of recommendation to be used for all of the graduate programs to which a student applies. Of course I understand the need for tailored letters in certain disciplines. In my own field of anthropology, it is important to emphasize in a letter the reasons why a student is a good fit for a particular program. I’m just not thrilled about having to write all of those tailored letters.

In 2011, I wrote roughly 90 formal letters of recommendation for students’ graduate-school and scholarship applications. While some of those letters were slightly retouched versions of the same letter, each one represents a significant time commitment because of the complicated process of letter submission.

The most time-consuming submissions are those that require faculty members to print out letters on letterhead and fill out additional forms by hand. Why haven’t all institutions adopted an online system for submitting letters?

At its worst, letter-writing and, especially, form-filling-outing and envelope-addressing, is tedious and burdensome. It might be a more rewarding process if colleges and universities counted letter-writing more explicitly in considering a faculty member’s annual reports and applications for promotion. At my university, we are asked to report on the progress of our advisees postgraduation, but we also write letters for many other students whom we did not directly supervise.

Students, of course, play a large part in making the writing process easier, or more painful, for faculty members. When a student who took one introductory class with me asks me to write him a letter of recommendation for graduate school, and provides me with little more than a list of the retail jobs he’s held, I find myself at a loss to craft anything meaningful.

A former colleague, John Kantner, who is now the vice president for academic and institutional advancement at the School for Advanced Research in New Mexico, wrote an excellent handout for our students, “What We Need to Write You a Thorough Letter of Recommendation.” He advised students seeking a recommendation to prepare a packet of information about themselves, at least two weeks to a month in advance of the first submission deadline. It should include the student’s résumé, draft of a personal statement, a list of courses the student took with the faculty member, and general information on the programs (including deadlines) to which the student is applying.

I hand out copies of Kantner’s paper to students in our senior seminar and have found that they appreciate the advice, which includes suggestions that may seem obvious to those who have been in academe for some time but are not at all intuitive to most students.

At its best, the process of writing a letter of recommendation can be a moving and affirming experience. And I’m not being sarcastic or tongue in cheek when I say that.

There are some students whose letters I have dreamed about writing long before they have asked me to do it. That group includes most of my graduate students, honors students, students whose internships I have supervised, and those I have gotten to know particularly well through a field school I direct in Brazil. Some of their accomplishments are particularly impressive as they are often first-generation college students; some are minority students from impoverished backgrounds, and/or are first- or second-generation immigrants to the United States. In my letters for those students, I often write, after lengthy descriptions of their accomplishments, that “I hope I am able to convey how strongly I feel about this student.” I mean every superlative I write in a letter of recommendation.

Another benefit I get from writing letters is in the writing itself. Just like any other form of writing, it requires discipline and a certain degree of creativity and critical thinking. So while I write more words in letters of recommendation than I do for publications in any given year, I feel like this form of writing, while perhaps detracting from the time I can spend working on research-related articles, has improved my article- and grant-writing skills.

In part, I decided to write this column to motivate myself for what is already shaping up to be one of the busiest letter-writing seasons yet. Surely I will break 100 this year.

Cassandra White is an associate professor of anthropology and director of undergraduate studies at Georgia State University, in Atlanta. For a copy of Kantner’s handout, “What We Need to Write You a Thorough Letter of Recommendation,” e-mail this author at cwhite@gsu.edu.

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