Letters of Recommendation: Don’t Damn Them With Faint Praise

Sauvage-Callaghan - Power to the People

Elisabeth Sauvage-Callaghan

Elisabeth Sauvage-Callaghan

I have been thinking about letters of recommendation lately – and that’s because I have read a great number of them over the past week or so, while reviewing applications for a position here at Clarion University and also for a scholarship award. I read some very good letters. And yes, I also came across a number of recommendations that might as well not have been written at all. Their writers should have known that they were doing more harm than good for the applicants.

We are university professors and, as such, are solicited frequently by students – sometimes with very little (i.e., insufficient) notice – to write them letters of recommendation in support of an application for a scholarship, for a work-study or permanent, post-graduation job, or for graduate school admission. Writing those letters is part of our job and can become burdensome and stressful at the height of “letter of recommendation season” – when our graduating seniors are applying for jobs or for graduate school. Yet, that is a task that should not be taken lightly because it does have a direct impact on someone’s future.

Here are my thoughts on letters of recommendation:

  1. It is ok to decline writing a letter of recommendation.

You can definitely do this if a student asks you for a letter less than a week before a given deadline.

My line on this one: Sorry, but I have a lot of my plate right now, and you are not giving me enough time to write you a strong, thoughtful letter.

You can also do so if you feel that you are not familiar enough with a student to write knowingly about him or her. Recently, a colleague mentioned to me that she had been asked for a letter of recommendation by an ex-student who she had taught for just a couple of semesters, and with whom she had not had any contact for some fifteen years! And I am certain that many of you have often been asked to write a recommendation by  a student who was one of 50 or 100 others in one of your classes for just one semester, and whose name does not even ring a bell.

My line on this one: Sorry, but I do not feel that I know you well enough to write you a letter of recommendation. Why don’t you ask a professor who is more familiar with you and your work?

And, of course, there are the not-so-good to really bad students about whom you wonder why they would ask you for a letter. I have to admit that, years ago, I wrote a letter for such a student, and its first line was “I have no clue why X asked me to write him this letter of recommendation” – and yes, it went downhill from there! I felt a little mean doing that, but this student – who was actually very smart but incredibly lazy – had not thought very hard before asking me to write him this letter which, I admit, I should not have agreed to write.

My line on this one: Look, you earned a D, and were far from a shining beacon in my class. Why don’t you ask for a letter from a professor in whose class you earned an A or a B?

  1. Once you have agreed to write a letter of recommendation, don’t damn your student (or ex-student) with faint praise.

Ask for specific information about that recommendation. This includes: To whom is this letter addressed, and by when? What is the student applying for? Grad school, a scholarship, a part-time job, a full-time post-graduation position? The more specific the information is, the better you can focus your recommendation to what your student is applying for.

Ask the requester for a current résumé, including a list of extracurricular activities. An instructor cannot know everything that a student has done, or all the details of his involvement in volunteer work or extracurricular activities. However, those are very important pieces of an applicant’s life journey and can help you tell a more useful story about the student.

Start crafting your letter, making sure to include the following: To tell your story well, show that you know the applicant, both as a student and as a person. Point out outstanding qualities, and be specific and concrete about what they’ve done. Draw from your personal experiences of what the student has done to demonstrate those strengths. Compare the student to others you have taught and indicate how others perceive the student (e.g., “one of the five best students in my 25 years of teaching”; “well respected by his/her peers”; “my colleagues all agree that this student is outstanding.”). Finally, give a phone number or e-mail address where you can be contacted for further information.

Pour your heart into crafting your letter.  I know, we all have our own “templates” for letters of recommendation; yet, each letter should reflect a personal investment on the part of the writer in the individual for whom it is written. I once read letters written on behalf of several students applying for the same scholarship by a professor who wrote identical, very generic letters for each one of them. Last week, I also read many letters that said absolutely nothing useful about the applicants.

What you want to convey is your real knowledge of the student and that you can testify for that person’s qualities as a good student and awesome individual (e.g., responsible and engaged, creative, strong interpersonal skills, effective communication skills).

When writing a letter of recommendation, you are putting your integrity on the line. My litmus test on this: I know that I am doing a great job on a letter of recommendation when writing it is close to effortless, if I feel warm and fuzzy inside and have fond memories of the individual I am recommending.

So, yes, writing letters of recommendation does take time and requires thoughtfulness. If those are two things that you cannot put into writing this particular letter, then don’t agree to do it.

Elisabeth Sauvage-Callaghan (formerly Elisabeth Donato) is an Associate Professor of French at Clarion University. She likes reflecting on her teaching practices. Her goal is that her students become proficient in all four language skills (listening, speaking, reading, and writing) and, most of all, fall in love with the French language, the French people, and the francophone culture. Her research focuses on French popular culture.

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