From AHTR’s Archives: Teaching ain’t just lectures: On Letters of Recommendations

Yep, it’s almost that time of year!  We pulled this great post from 2014  to offer some helpful hints and guidance in writing letters of recommendation.  Enjoy!


I wrote my first letter of recommendation about seven or eight years ago when I was a teaching assistant while pursuing my M.A. in art history. The student was enrolled in one of my discussion sections and the letter, if I recall correctly, was part of his application for a study abroad program. It was an unfamiliar situation, an unfamiliar type of writing, and quite honestly I didn’t know the student very well (he was one out of about 80-90 students in four sections). The letter that I wrote was the “best” I could do in such a situation: it was honest, tailored to the student as much as possible when based on some grades and a resume, and consisted of about three paragraphs. Since then, I have written many letters for students applying to internships, graduate school, apprenticeships and training programs, and scholarships. I rarely decline to write a letter for a student, partly due to a sense of professionalism (this is part of the job, right?) but mostly because I am someone who has both asked for and benefited from these types of letters and therefore view writing them as a kind of ethical obligation to “pay it forward.”

My rule of thumb is to only write letters in which I can actually recommend the student for the position/program–and this means that I know the student and yes, they are a great person for the position–or if I can get the information/materials necessary to justify a recommendation. As a result, the difference between my first letter-writing experience and now is that I am less likely to immediately respond “Sure, just send me your info!” and more likely to ask for additional information before agreeing or declining. Simple questions will give you a great deal of insight as to what is required of you and whether or not the student will remain in contact:

* When is the due date?

* Who will read it and will I be contacted for follow-up information?

* How many letters will you need?

* Are you expecting me to proofread and/or copyedit your application materials, or offer you feedback on them?

Even more recently, I have begun to request an in-person meeting with the student in order to go over their application materials as well as to get a sense of the student’s personality, goals, etc.

In other words, I’ve created some space between the student’s initial request and my eventual answer so that I can consider if I can actually write the letter the student needs. From my perspective, these questions and meetings are necessary in order for the student to get the best letter that I’m capable of writing. The need for such a space was borne out of many minor-but-frequent situations (usually a combo of infrequent student communication, lack of advance notice or application materials) that made me realize that I needed some kind of policy to help me figure out what I was actually capable of doing (vs. my gut instinct to do whatever it takes to write the best letter EVER). The whole process – gathering info/materials, writing, submitting, and so forth – does take quite a bit of time and effort, which all gets categorized as “just part of the job.”

This post actually stems from an email that I sent to Michelle and Karen requesting an AHTR post (though not necessarily by me!) soliciting tips, advice, and protocol from other faculty when they are considering whether or not to write a letter. All three of us agreed that writing these letters are part of the job, the broader set of duties – explicit or implicit – expected of a person who leads a classroom. However, our agreement on that point is, I think, part of a broader issue in higher education, the “just part of the job” mentality. As Michelle pointed out in one of her emails, contingent labor is willing to go above and beyond in serving their institutions despite their working conditions that include quite a bit of labor without getting paid. With more media attention as of late focused on the working conditions of contingent faculty (and also graduate students, though somewhat to a lesser extent), it hardly needs to be stated that something like writing letters of recommendation isn’t actually part of the job – at least the part that entails “getting fairly compensated for work outside the classroom.” (Perhaps this is why the IRS released new guidelines for universities when calculating adjunct hours?)

In any event, it is possible to note that contracts vary between departments, degrees attained, and institutions while also acknowledging the fact that most adjuncts are only paid for classroom hours, thereby leaving any work performed outside the classroom – grading, office hours, writing student letters, course prep – remains uncompensated but still “just part of the job.” To be clear: this is all work that is required to run a semi-functional classroom to say nothing of a worthwhile educational experience for students. In wake of Miya Tokumitsu’s Jacobin piece about “doing what you love” as career advice, it seems that “just part of the job” shouldn’t be the rationale used by both employees who work without payment and also by the university that doesn’t fairly pay its employees.

That said, there are ways of managing student’s requests so that you don’t find yourself crafting a last-minute letter when a student emails you, “Hey, sorry but I mixed up the deadlines, the letter is due today at 5 pm, thanks!” (This actually happened. I have been guilty of it, too, so I can’t be too upset.) Obviously, the ideal situation is that you are only ever asked to write letters for extremely conscientious and prepared students whom you know really well. In other cases, the best advice that I can offer: check with your department about their expectations, and create that space between the initial request and your answer, and  do so in a way that is mutually agreeable to both you and the student. For me, just giving myself the mental permission to decline a request did a lot in managing the stress that I experience when writing these letters. Karen suggested keeping an external document prepared to send to students that communicates your expectations: “It says I agree (if that is indeed what I am doing) and then notes that in order for me to write this letter I must receive the following from the student. A list of my requirements follows.”

For readers:

* How do you handle student requests for letters?

* What factors do you consider?

* Have you created a “rule” to follow, such as only writing letters for students in upper-level classes?

* Do you tailor all letters for students or do you have a template that you modify depending on the student?

* Do you add a note in the syllabus about recommendation letters?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.