February 11, 2015

Teaching Professional Skills… asking for letters of recommendation

Posted by Laura Guertin

There are some topics we can address with our students in intro to advanced courses, with non-majors to STEM majors, to help them develop professional knowledge and skills to succeed as students and in their future careers.  This post provides an example as to why we may want to review with students who and how to ask for letters of recommendation.

Although all of our campuses have Career Services Centers (or something similar) that hold sessions or have handouts for students on asking for letters of recommendation, it seems that our students could still use a little advice from their academic advisers and classroom instructors.  For example, I recently had a student ask for a letter of recommendation that was due in two days.  And then there are the requests that come to me with this tone/language:

Hey there! How the hell are ya? It’s been way too long. I’m actually reaching out because I applied for 2 positions at [XXX], and wanted to know if you would at all mind putting my name out there?

And another “blast from the past” came in:

I hope that all is well and that you are enjoying the nice weather we are starting to have! I am writing to inform you that I have started to send out applications for [XXX] since I am graduating in May with my Masters in [XXX] from University of [XXX] and your letter of recommendation is one that I have included in multiple applications and you may be called as a reference.

This particular student I hadn’t communicated with since his/her sophomore year, who apparently held on to a paper copy of a letter I provided for a campus program – certainly inappropriate for a student to use post-graduate school for a job.

Do any of these situations sound familiar?  I fear that we could write a book with the inappropriate requests from students for letters of recommendation, and the requests that just leave us scratching our heads as to why we specifically we singled out and asked in the first place.

I have some thoughts as to what we can do as faculty to be helpful and fair to our students that need our letters.  For example…

It is OK for us to say “no” when asked – and explain why.  I had one student ask me for a letter, but this was a student that spent most of the semester falling asleep in my class and always took a back seat during in-class activities.  I told him I declined to write the letter, but I also explained why, that I would have to comment on his classroom behavior which would not be viewed positively by the reviewer.  I had another student that asked me to write a letter for an engineering scholarship she was applying for, and the scholarship committee was looking for specific feedback on her knowledge and performance in engineering courses.  As I don’t teach engineering, I explained to the student that my letter would not helpful and could not address what was being requested.  If I as a faculty member cannot write a strong letter of support for a student, I take advantage of the opportunity to mentor the student and explain why, so they can quickly connect with faculty that are better positioned to help.

Avoid writing a generic letter for a student that gets “recycled” by the student.  Several schools such as Cornell University have a university computerized credential file service.  Although it would make our lives easier by writing one letter that a student can use for every application and instance he/she needs a letter of recommendation, it does not allow us faculty to call attention to specific qualities and accomplishments of the student.  As each program, job and internship a student applies for varies, our letters should also vary with the content we include to highlight the best qualities of the student.

Write a “how to ask” statement for individual faculty/department.  There are some geology programs that have streamlined the process for students to request letters.  The geology departments at Union College and Bucknell University have webpages with guidelines on what students should prepare, and the geology departments at Macalester College and Gustavus Adolphus College have online forms/documents for students to complete when requesting a letter.

Take 5 minutes of class time to review why you are a good/poor choice for a letter.  Similar to how I take the time to explain what my “doctor of philosophy” means (not a degree in philosophy!), I spend a few minutes of class time explaining what I can and can’t write for students, and why.  I teach introductory-level general education courses for non-science majors.  I make it a point to learn all of my students’ names early in the semester and chat informally with them before and after class.  This makes me a prime candidate for a letter, according to the practices encouraged by our Career Services Center – ask a faculty member that knows you well.  But then I review why I would not be a strong support letter for an English major applying to graduate school for English, why faculty in their major courses in their junior and senior years are much better positioned to comment on their abilities to perform in a job in their major field, etc.  I am certainly more than comfortable writing letters for students applying for campus scholarships or the university honors program, but I urge the students to carefully think about and read what information is being requested in the letter, and who is the strongest faculty member to provide the information.  And I always end by reminding students that they should always ASK a faculty member before putting their name in an online recommendation form – too often, those email requests are automatically generated and sent to us immediately, before we know what the program is about and before the student even speaks to us.

Since I have been doing this practice in class of reviewing who to ask for letters of recommendation, students are now emailing to ask for a letter and volunteering why I am a good person to write for them.  I enjoy seeing the thoughtful approach students are now taking when seeking a reference from me, and I am hopeful that the students are just as thoughtful and strategic when requesting letters from other faculty.

This is certainly not an exhaustive list of ideas and approaches.  If you have additional thoughts, please include them in the comments field below!