Writing Letters of Recommendation by Meggin McIntosh, PhD

By meggin@meggin.com
Feb 7th, 2014

  1. Allot time for writing letters of recommendation.  Very few of the ones you need to write are “quick.”  Budget at least 15″ – 30″/letter, depending on the relationship with the student and the type of letter you are writing.
  2. Put the onus on the student (or colleague) who is asking for the letter of recommendation.  It is reasonable to ask some students (or colleagues) to send you a Word document with the address, date, and other pertinent information already typed in.  That is clerical work that you don’t need to be tending to.  Note:  Interestingly enough, there will be a few “requestors” that never get you what you asked for and so you now have fewer letters to write.
  3. Have the “requestor” actually write the letter.  Clearly, you have the choice either to go with what the student submits to you, revise and edit it, or completely start from scratch.  For most of us, editing is easier and faster than the initial composition so this can increase your productivity (as well as the clarity and specificity) of what you write.  It’s a win-win situation.  Note:  As a colleague pointed out after reading this, for a student who has NEVER even seen a letter of recommendation, this is not a sensible request (nor a fair request).  In other instances, it can serve both of you.
  4. Set up basic templates for letters of recommendation.  It’s not that you are writing the same ideas, by any means.  However, there are particular ways that most of us open and close our letters of rec and even having those in place saves time and effort.
  5. Have a basic template set up that is pre-formatted to fit on your stationery.  Send that to the person who is asking for the letter so that s/he can input the information (addresses, addressee, and the like) right in your template.  If you are working on this without the student’s help, then having the template makes it easier for you, too, of course.
  6. When you are writing multiple letters for the same student (e.g., a doc student applying for various jobs or fellowships), create the first letter and then do a “File | Save As” with a new document name and make the changes necessary.  It feels (and is) fast and reasonably easy.
  7. Have an established “letter of rec” day each month.  You want to bunch, i.e., consolidate tasks like this one.  Once you are in a letter-of-recommendation mindset, it’s easier to stay there and keep your momentum going.  Let students know that you write letters once a month (or whatever time you establish) and that they need to have all requests in to you prior to the date or their request will be saved until the next month.  You may always make exceptions for special situations, but don’t divulge that!
  8. Have a label-maker program (e.g., Dymo Label Writer is what I use) so that it’s easy and fast to create the envelope.  You can also ask the students to bring you a label along with their request for the letter of recommendation.
  9. Say yes most times…but not always.  There are some students for whom you would not be able to write a good letter of recommendation – and there are others you just don’t know well enough.  Tell students the truth.
  10. Write a great letter – but not a perfect letter.  You can strive for excellence.  You cannot attain perfection.  This applies to letters of recommendation as well as to essentially everything else you’re working on.

Most of these ideas also work well when the letter of rec needs to be submitted electronically, which is, of course, happening more and more.  Use and adapt any or all of the tips.  You will be more responsive and productive (and less stressed, which is always a plus) when you are asked to write letters for students, colleagues, or others.

Here is another tip from one of my subscribers, Jennifer Travis:

Require the letter-requesting student to submit 1) a summary of his/her experiences, leadership roles, community service, etc.; and 2) a short informal essay describing his/her academic history and academic/career/personal goals.

This serves three purposes: it weeds out the students unwilling to go to the trouble of writing this, it gives me information I can use to write a better, less generic letter, and it helps me to get to know the student better.

Personally, if I asked a professor to write a letter, and the professor asked me to write the letter myself, I would be very uncomfortable and offer to write something like the above instead. If that wasn’t acceptable, I would try to find someone else to write a recommendation. My thought is that whoever I am applying to wants to know what the professor actually thinks of me, not what I hope the professor will say. The goals essay is good practice for the student, and I tell them I don’t mind if they self-plagiarize some or all of it from essays they have already written.

Of course, when writing letters, I am very willing to cut/paste/edit sections from the student’s summary, which serves the same purpose as asking the student to write the letter, without the uncomfortableness.

And as a college or university faculty member, you have many opportunities for success and failure. If you would like additional tips, tools, and techniques that you can use to support your successes, then you will want to access the The Compendium of Productivity Tips for Professors a step by step guide that will help you have a successful year and a compelling career as an academic.