Advice On Soliciting Strong Recommendation Letters

shannon craigo-snellNote: This blog post was originally published on our Inside Higher Ed column. Shannon Craigo-Snell is professor of theology at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. She is the author of The Empty Church: Theater, Theology and Bodily Hope (Oxford, 2014). Her forthcoming book, No Innocent Bystanders: Becoming an Ally in the Struggle for Justice, co-authored with Christopher Doucot, will be released in 2017. She is involved in activism as well as a variety of academic organizations.

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In the early years of academic life, scholars are asked to provide letters of recommendation for various opportunities, including jobs, grants, summer funding and fellowships.

For scholars who are “likable” — those who reflect the dominant culture and fit neatly into the mold of senior scholars eager to mentor them — I suspect this is rather easy. When I was a graduate student, my male classmates played squash with senior professors, took them out for a celebratory drink after completing comprehensive exams and invited them over for dinner. None of these avenues of getting to know professors seemed open to me. If I, as a woman, asked a senior professor (quite likely a man) out for a drink, the cultural subtext would be very different. That meant that when it was time to ask for letters of recommendation, the male professors knew Tom, Dick and Harry quite well, while they might not recall a paper I had written.

Marginalized scholars often face an uphill battle in finding mentors, and that can be reflected in letters of recommendation that have enormous importance in opening doors throughout their careers. Thus, in this essay, I provide concrete tips for soliciting strong letters of recommendation, specifically for my fellow marginalized scholars.

Selecting Recommenders

Often a scholar is asked to provide more than one letter of recommendation. As you consider whom to ask, keep in mind that you will want people who can speak to different parts of your experience or different strengths. You will also want to make sure that your recommenders are from diverse backgrounds and varied specializations or research areas.

Unfortunately, having only women or only people of color will be a drawback in many situations. For those operating out of explicit or implicit (racial and/or gender) bias, this can pigeonhole a scholar into a particular niche and lessen the sense that they will contribute broadly to the field. In certain fields, it might be the case that having all white men write letters on your behalf would also be a drawback. Balance is likely key in whom you ask to write for you.

Asking for a Letter

When I ask someone for a recommendation, I try to do three things. First, I make clear why I am asking them, in particular, to write this letter on my behalf. Something along the lines of “Because we worked together in this capacity or on this project, you are able to speak to this specific skill, ability, strength or experience I have.” Second, I put them on the hook for a really strong letter. I ask them, specifically, if they could write a strong letter of recommendation for me.

Third, I give them a way out if they feel like they cannot write a really strong letter. My wording is something like this: “I am applying for X. They have asked for recommendation letters to be sent by X date. You know my work well from our past experience X, so I was wondering if you would be able to write a strong letter of recommendation for me. I know that you have a lot going on right now, so I understand if the timing does not work.” At least once, I have had a recommender use the back-out option, and I was glad. I would much prefer to be told no than to have a weak letter that could sabotage my entire application.

Providing Information

What makes a letter of recommendation stand out from all of the rest is its level of specificity. Generic letters fade into the background, while detailed and particular letters shine. For example, every recommendation form asks the writer to say how long they have known the person they are recommending. A generic letter says, “Three years.” A specific letter says, “I first met X when we both spoke on a panel about X. Her presentation was a comparison between Y and Z that was so insightful, I began teaching her article on the subject in my classes.”

To help your recommenders write detailed letters, you can provide them with tailored information that is easy to access. I suggest giving your recommender a packet that contains materials such as:

  1. A personalized letter that: a) thanks them for agreeing to write for you, b) reminds them the particular reason you have asked them to write and c) reminds them of the various ways you have interacted professionally. For example: “We first met in 2007 when I took your course on X, you sat on my comprehensive exam in 2010, we were on a panel together in 2011,” and so forth. Or it might be: “We worked together on X research project in 2012 and served on X committee together for three semesters.”
  2. A copy of the official description of the opportunity for which you are applying.
  3. A copy of your up-to-date CV.
  4. A copy of your letter of application, personal statement or research proposal.
  5. If you are a student asking a professor or former professor for a letter, it is good to include a paper that you wrote for that professor with the professor’s comments and grade on it. I realize this might not be possible, and that it would have been helpful to have this advice earlier.
  6. If you are a graduate student writing a dissertation, you might send a chapter of your dissertation.
  7. A very clear statement of how and when to submit the requested recommendations.

It is important to give this information to your recommender in a format that is extremely easy to see and cross-reference. Ask your recommender if she would prefer digital or electronic copies of your materials.

Follow Up

A few days before the letter is due, send a friendly email reminder, which can be as simple as “This is a friendly reminder that the recommendation letter for X is due on X.” After the deadline has passed or you receive notification that the letter has been received, send a handwritten thank-you note. If someone writes multiple letters of reference for you, it is appropriate to send a small gift, such as a small package of good chocolates, in appreciation.

These steps — selecting recommenders, asking for a strong letter, providing information and following up — will improve a marginalized scholar’s chances of getting a selection of outstanding letters of recommendation.

Advice For Faculty On Writing Strong Recommendation Letters

Manya WhitakerNote: This blog post was originally published on our Inside Higher Ed column. Manya Whitaker is an assistant professor of education at Colorado College and a regular contributor to Conditionally Accepted. Her areas of expertise include urban education, culturally relevant pedagogy, and developmentally appropriate teaching. She is the founder of Blueprint Educational Strategies, an educational consulting business that provides workshops for teachers and administrators, as well as guidance and advocacy for families.

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A few years ago, I wrote “A Letter to College Students (From All Profs)” in which I provided advice to students about how to ask for letters of recommendation. Interestingly, just as students do not intuitively know how to find letter writers, faculty members, too, seem to lack automatic insight into how to write strong letters on their students’ behalf. In our years of training to become researchers, I doubt many of us are taught to write recommendation letters.

If I may be frank for a moment … letters of recommendation suck! It sucks to read them, and it sucks to write them. Still, almost all institutions, programs and employers require two to four letters for admission, acceptance and employment, and, despite the hassles those letters can sometimes bring, I believe that they should. Recommendation letters are often the deciding factors among candidates. They offer insight into an applicant’s temperament, working style, manageability and potential for professional growth. They are meant to be an opportunity for someone close to the candidate to explicate how and why they should be afforded this new experience instead of the other 200 applicants.

Toward that end, I believe a recommendation-letter writer bears a heavy burden that they do not always treat with respect. I know that some professors allow their students to write their own letters. Some copy and paste large portions of letters they have written before or simply find a template online and fill in the blanks.

I realize that academics are busy and that recommendation letters are an added task to our overloaded schedules. However, the fact of the matter is that letters of recommendation are an integral part of academe’s business model. And we should never forget that at some point, someone wrote a letter on our behalf. A recommendation letter may have been the aspect of our application that tipped the scales in our favor. Writing on behalf of our students is an opportunity to pay it forward.

Here are some general guidelines that I have compiled from my experiences as an anxious applicant reading my many letters of recommendation, as someone on admissions and hiring committees, and now as a full-time professor writing at least a dozen of these letters each year.

  1. Decide whether you can write a good letter for the applicant. Consider your schedule, the nature and quality of your relationship with the applicant, and how well you know them. If you find you cannot think of what you would write in a letter of recommendation, perhaps you should decline. Which brings me to …
  2. It is OK to say no. I encourage faculty members to develop a policy for writing recommendations that includes requirements for academic performance, a time frame or whatever else you need to feel comfortable writing. Make sure your policy is truthful and instituted consistently. If you say you need three weeks to write, do not decline one person because they asked 10 days before the due date but agree to write one for another person who did the same. People talk. You do not want to develop a bad reputation. Remember, students evaluate us, too.
  3. Request as much information as possible before you begin writing. Ask the student to provide material about themselves and the opportunity or program to which they are applying. That includes a résumé or CV, personal statement and essays, answers to application questions, transcripts, and, of course, a description of the institution/program/job to which they are applying. These materials are useful complements to more-personal narratives.
  4. Do some research. If you agree to write the letter and they do not send you the requested material, take three minutes to Google the institution/program/job. I am not suggesting that you do all of the legwork, but information about even the location of the job could help you craft your letter. If that seems like too much work, just revisit the student’s performance in your course and ask colleagues for their input. Some information is better than nothing.
  5. Set aside ample time. A good recommendation letter, like a good paper, is well researched, requires planning and takes revision. If you can write a letter in less than an hour, it may not be your best work. If the letter is only two paragraphs double spaced, you may not be going into enough detail. After all, don’t you expect students to be thoughtful and thorough in their writing? We should do no less for them.
  6. Be specific. This may be the most important piece of advice. Reading vague letters of recommendation filled with generalized claims of awesomeness may be the most annoying part of being on a search committee. Provide specific examples to support your statements. Try to paint a picture so that readers get a true sense of who the applicant is in real life — or at least outside your classes.
  7. Avoid cliché descriptors and platitudes. Words like organized, team worker, creative, passionate and dedicated are found in almost every recommendation letter. Regardless of how accurate these descriptions may be, they come across as shallow when you read the same sentence over and over. Instead, think about skills that would be useful in the potential position and see if the applicant possesses them. If not, identify what they do possess and explicitly state why that particular skill is beneficial.
  8. Organize the letter chronologically or thematically. Have an introduction that identifies the position being applied for, describes the nature and duration of your relationship with the applicant, and previews what you will discuss. Be sure to close with a clear statement of endorsement for acceptance/hire and include contact information for questions. This sounds like a no-brainer, but many recommendation letters are devoid of the basics (which is usually a sign that it is a form letter).
  9. Be honest. Be original. Be genuine. That means not having people write their own letters. It means not writing the same letter for every person. It definitely means not borrowing templates from the internet. Form letters are easily identified and often result in the candidate’s application being set aside. If you do not even want to write a letter of recommendation on their behalf, why would I want to hire them?
  10. Follow through. This student has trusted you with an important task. You accepted, so it is your responsibility to do it well and on time. One late or missing component of an application can render a package incomplete and thus not up for consideration.

That’s it. Writing letters of recommendation is not the most enjoyable or simple task, but it can be ultimately one of the most rewarding. I find it an honorably humbling experience to play a role in helping someone enter the next phase of their life.

Maybe that’s why I’m a teacher.