It is still Christmas break and I have yet to start on my sabbatical research. I haven’t been idle, though. I have gone into the office on most days over the last week to file papers and put away lab equipment. My office is so straight now! If this were a normal semester, I’d be working on course syllabi, prepping my first few lectures, and reserving vans for student field trips.
Next week, things will be really different because classes will start and I won’t be teaching. One thing that will remain the same is my responsibility of writing letters of recommendation for students applying to internships, jobs, and graduate and professional programs.
I write letters of recommendation for about 15 current and former students each year. Each student typically applies to more than one program or school or job, so the actual number of recommendations I submit in a given year can top 50. It takes me 45 minutes to compose a good letter, and then 15 minutes to mail it or submit it online. Once the first letter is written for a student, I can easily modify it for when the student needs it sent somewhere else.
For example, yesterday I submitted a letter of recommendation to a graduate school, written on behalf of one of my current research students. I had already written a letter for him for a different application, so it took only 15 minutes for me to re-read what I wrote earlier, make sure it was up to date and applied to the new application, log on to the graduate school website, answer a few survey questions about the student, and then upload my letter.
Are you bored reading this yet? Sorry. I’ll get to the point: submitting recommendations is a significant part of a professor’s job. Using the figures outlined above, I spend about 24 hours per year writing letters and filling in recommendation forms for my students. I have colleagues who get three to four times more recommendation requests, so it’s an even bigger responsibility for them. In case you are curious, fewer students pursue my field of study for a career, so I get fewer requests.
Maybe 45 minutes is a lot of time to spend on a letter. But what’s the right amount of time?
If I whip one up in 10 minutes, it’s not going to be very good, and the student will not benefit in any way.
My letters of recommendation start off with a paragraph explaining how I know the student. Then I describe the student’s academic performance in my class(es). I also tell stories about my interaction with the student so the student becomes memorable and likeable to the person reading my letter. I think hard about the phrasing I use. There is a difference between “I recommend this student” and “I strongly recommend this student without reservation.” I may spend a minute or more trying to decide the degree to which I recommend the student.
[To my current students: don’t be alarmed at this. If I don’t have a lot of good things to say about you, I will tell you ahead of time]
Why can’t I write the most glowing, awesome letter possible for each student?
My answer is that it is dishonest to do so. If I write that a student is an excellent candidate for a job, and the student gets the job because of my recommendation, and the student really isn’t a good fit for that job, then there is a lot of harm that can be done.
First, the student will be in a position in which he or she will have a hard time being successful. Second, the employer will get soured on all St. Vincent College students because our “excellent” students don’t seem to be all that excellent. Third, my own reputation will be harmed because I lied or exaggerated about how good the student would be for the job.
Of course, students at St. Vincent are usually well prepared for a job or graduate school, so my letters reflect that. It then becomes my challenge to add language and context to make employers want to hire the student.
The recommendation I submitted this week for my student was one of those long, detailed letters. I wrote seven paragraphs (a lot) about him with the hope that the graduate school would read my letter and accept him on the spot without question or concern. Because that’s how I feel about him....He’s going to go far!