It’s that time of the year again. Seniors are thinking ahead about their impending futures (a job, grad school, the Peace Corps). Former students are advancing in their careers. Colleagues and co-workers are engaging in year-end reflection and considering new positions. People are applying for grants, scholarships, and fellowships.
That means letters of recommendation.
When a request comes out of the blue during a busy week, our first reaction is sometimes to shudder. “Yikes,” we think, “one more task to fit in on top of exams, papers, proposals, committee reports, and the usual slew of email.” Task saturation.
Sure, letters of recommendation are work, but it is writing that makes a difference in people’s lives. If you keep a few principles in mind as you approach your letters, writing recommendations can be rewarding and even enjoyable.
The letter is not about you.
If you’ve read Julie Schumacher’s epistolary novel Dear Committee Members, you know the comic effect that arises when a letter of recommendation is more about the writer than the subject. Most of us are not as clueless as her protagonist, but it is easy to slip into too much first person. Letters should focus on the recommendee and their accomplishments, strengths (and weaknesses), and potential. There’s a time and place for introducing your favorite subject, but not when you are writing a letter of recommendation.
So instead of writing this:
I first met so-and-so when she took my introduction to the English language course two years ago and I was so impressed with her research and writing ability that I encouraged her to enroll in my advanced grammar course, where I have students write an in-depth paper…
You might try this:
So-and-so came to our department two years ago and performed impressively in the introduction to the English language, where she wrote a fine short paper on gender and pronouns. Later in advanced grammar, she wrote an in-depth paper on adjective clauses in written English texts.
Oh, and don’t start the letter by saying your name. They’ll see that at the end.
Provide some evidence and detail.
Try to show as well as tell. It’s one thing to extoll someone’s abilities to communicate, research, or think, but it’s even better to be able to say how you know. Was there a standout effort or project? If so, what was unique about it? What was notable about the way that the person contributed to class discussions, organizational efforts or community? How did their efforts go beyond the norm? What are they best at?
Remember to contextualize.
Reference forms often ask simplistic questions like: “Compared to all the candidates you have known, where do you rank this person?” Ugh. Who can say? And who keeps track of people that way?
For students, try to focus on them as real people, not as some percentage or even a grade point average. Are they juggling work, family, and school? Are they funny, thoughtful, diligent, well-prepared, diffident? Do they know what they want to do or are they experimenting (or even drifting)? Are they excited about school, learning, and their possible careers?
The same is true for colleagues. Try to put them and their work in. What are they involved in and committed to in your institution or community? Are they tapped for organizational priorities? Are they able to keep their balance while multitasking? Why are they ready for this new opportunity now?
Be honest but tactful.
The most important part of a reference rests in your ability to be honest about someone’s abilities and background. It’s a delicate task sometimes, but we do no one any favors if we gloss over weak points.
Honesty can be tricky in letters, since readers cannot see your face, they cannot ask follow up questions, and they may over-interpret remarks as more negative than they are meant to be. Are you damning with faint praise (“The student is a good writer” but not excellent) or sending a hidden message (“She often comes up with ideas that no one else considers” perhaps trivial ones or “He has a strong work ethic” but not much else). Be aware of what uncharitable readers might read into your letter.
One strategy that works for me is to link a weakness with a discussion of a complementary strength or other attributes. So, for example, you might find yourself explaining that someone is “intellectually ambitious though sometimes takes on topics that are hard to manage in just one semester” or that while a person is “somewhat quiet in class, her written work shows that she is engaged with the material.”
Another strategy is to point out to the recipient of the letter what is still needed to make someone flourish: “His skills have improved tremendously in a short time, and with further opportunities to develop them, he will be a solid researcher.”
Give your letter an ambiguity check.
I once told an excellent student who was prone to excessive wordplay that I would write in her letter of recommendation that “you’ll be very lucky if you can get her to work for you.” I was just kidding of course, though it’s always worth giving letters that final check not just for typos, autocorrects, and grammatical infelicities, but also for its potential for misreading. You never know what you might have said.
Think of recommendations as an opportunity.
I’ve come to appreciate the reflective aspect of writing letters of recommendation. In the day-to-day bustle of work, you may be too busy to think about all of your students and colleagues as people. Writing letters of recommendation is an opportunity to reflect on what people might be accomplishing in the future. It allows us not just to respond to tests, papers, and projects, but to a person’s aspirations.
So when you get that visit, call, or email asking you to write a recommendation whose work you value, don’t think “yikes.” Just say “yes.”
Image Credit: “Mystery Writers” by Nana B Agyei. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.