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Writing letters of recommendation

As a faculty member, I am regularly called upon to write recommendation letters for my students. It’s one of the genres that I can’t readily share as part of this essay series (therefore, it’s also a reason that these essays sometimes get delayed). As I recover from some recent recommendations, it seems useful to reflect upon these letters.

Students ask me to write recommendation letters. And, as my department has grown, I’m finding that I write more and more letters. I write letters for students applying to graduate school, for students applying for summer internships, for students applying to study abroad, for students applying for scholarships, and more. I also fill out recommendation forms for many things, sometimes these forms are in addition to the letters, sometimes they take the place of the letters. (In the latter cases, I still try to write a short paragraph, but I don’t really consider those full recommendation letters.)

I find writing recommendation letters to be one of the most challenging tasks I encounter as a faculty member because I must balance so many issues. I care a lot about my students, and think that most of them, even the C-level students, will succeed in what they do. It’s hard to figure out the right way to promote their strengths while also admitting their weaknesses. Since I know that people remember recommendation letters, I don’t want to over-promote students because that may weaken the impact of future letters. And, when I have those truly spectacular students, I struggle to find the right words to describe how spectacular they are. (Okay, all of my students are spectacular in their own ways. But some really do stand out.)

Often, I find that there’s a mixture of knowing too much and too little about each student. Grinnell is a small college. I talk to my students all of the time. So I know many interesting things about them, not always positive interesting things. (I’m too good at remembering when they’ve been casual about turning in work on time, or not particularly engaged in the class, or too willing to turn in mediocre work, or whatever. I’m also good at remembering extra-curricular activities, but I don’t always know how much those matter in the letters.) At the same time, I teach enough students that it’s very hard to remember the particular academic achievements of each student. (Given that I now try to do blind grading for most major assignments, it’s even harder, since I can’t really associate a student with particularly clever or thoughtful answers.) I’m clearly getting older and more forgetful. As I did exit interviews this year, I even forgot that I had taught some of those students this past fall. My organization, such as it is, also doesn’t help.

One thing that does help is something I learned from my mother. I ask every student to answer a series of questions. I can draw on those answers to remind me of the student’s achievements and to look for things to highlight. (I also think that answering the questions is useful for the student.)

But even with those notes, an inner voice always makes me doubt my letters. I think the letters are the length (usually 1.5 pages) and structure (e.g., introduction, context for classwork, description of how they did, additional achievements, notes on other issues, conclusion) that I’d like to see. But I hear from some colleagues that they think letters should be short, and will never read beyond the first two paragraphs. I hear from others that they really don’t want to hear about the details of the class or research project that a student worked on, since that’s supplemental to the student’s own achievements. And, I’m increasingly seeing letters that include a paragraph about the recommender, something I’ve never written. (Samuel A. Rebelsky is Professor and Chair of Computer Science at Grinnell College and Director of the Grinnell Laboratory for Interactive Multimedia Experimentation and Research. Boring!) I can usually convince that inner voice that my letters generally serve the intended purpose, but it does keep challenging me. I should probably send a few letters to our center for Careers, Life, and Service to see what they think.

Then there’s the question of how long I want to spend on each letter (or how long I can spend on each letter). If I want to be really serious about it, I should go back and look at all of the student work that I can find, review notes that I might have in various places, write a draft, edit, come back later, and do all of the things necessary for strong writing. But I rarely have that much time, particularly, as in recent years, when I have a group of students who all have the same thing they are applying for and the same deadline. My inner doubts and the what’s right to write? challenge also mean that I normally write letters slower than I write other texts. (I’ve rarely been able to write a letter in under an hour, although I’m getting a bit better.) At times, I feel like I’m too quick, quicker than I should be or than my colleagues are. At times, I feel that I’m too slow, and that my colleagues find ways to write better letters faster. But I do what I can. It doesn’t help that when students are applying to multiple places, each seems to have its own form that they want filled out, or their own login, or …. All of that limits the total time I have to focus on writing.

These anxieties about writing letters also mean that I often wait until the last minute to write the letters. In some ways, that’s good. Somewhere in the back of my head (or wherever it resides), my subconscious is thinking about the student and what I should say. But there are too many times that I am like a typical Grinnell student, waiting too long and then panicking about whether or not I’ll get the work (that is, the letter) done in time.

But I will keep writing recommendation letters. Students need them. My letters sometimes make a big difference. (Given the success rate for some recent applications, I think my letters have been doing well.) It’s part of the job.

But that’s not where we’ll end this essay. I’m going to end by reflecting on some of the real positives of writing letters (other than just their success). For students I know well, and that’s many of them, writing about the student is a chance to reflect on the relationship I have with the student and my pride in their successes (even when one of my inner voices tells me that I don’t write well enough about those successes). Writing recommendation letters is also an opportunity to write. Every opportunity to write has the chance to improve my writing. Particularly if I don’t let myself fall into stock phrases (or if I push myself to edit out those stock phrases), I can become a better writer. I also find a bit of pride in every PDF letter I make because I wrote the Postscript code for my letterhead, including code to generate the Laurel Leaf. It’s something that only a computer scientist would care about (and probably most won’t care), but I love that most of my PDF files are under 10K, including the logo. I also think they look nice.

It’s challenging to write recommendation letters, but it’s a task that is both necessary and rewarding. I’ll keep that in mind the next time a student asks me to write one.

Version 1.0 of 2016-05-26.