Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Letters of reference

Two undergraduates have asked me to write letters of reference for them for the same scholarship program, and I said yes to both, and now I feel weird about it. One of them is a undergrad research assistant working on a project with me as part of a program I direct, and the other is an undergrad RA working on a project as part of the same program, but with a different research advisor (who is also writing a letter for the student). For the first student, writing a letter of recommendation for him was a breeze (well, relatively speaking, anyway - I find writing solid, helpful letters of reference really difficult, and this one was less difficult than most).

For the second student, my interactions with him have been limited to our weekly program meetings where he's one of 10 students. I like him, he participates fully, he has a good sense of humor and he's very punctual. But . . . I don't know, if I were a scholarship committee member I would probably not find punctuality and niceness all that compelling. I am struggling with how to write an appropriate letter of reference for him.

It's tough to be an undergrad trying to drum up letters of reference, I'm sure. Your interactions with potential letter writers are often quite limited and you probably have no idea what a person would or could or should write about you in a letter.

And it's hard to write letters of reference. I think other people must struggle with this as much as I do (or, maybe they don't but they should?) because I have read some really sucky letters, mostly in grad school applications. By sucky, I mean, they have next to no value in helping the reader make a decision about the relative potential of this student to do whatever it is they're applying to do. For instance, I once read a letter of reference for a student applying to a very technical graduate program that was written by this student's former jazz flute teacher, who talked about what a good understanding of jazz this student had. I understand that perhaps out of all the professor types this student had encountered during undergrad (which was not in music, by the way) the jazz professor was the one with whom the student had the longest and most in-depth relationship, but . . . really, this letter was not that helpful to me in assessing the student's potential for research. Although I did appreciate that the student had a wide range of interests and I suppose (though it was not mentioned in the reference letter) that the student probably has some good experience combining theory with creativity.

I have also followed the lead of some senior colleagues who, when asked by a student to write a reference letter, have asked the student to either write a draft of the letter first, and email it to the professor (which I think would so horrify me if I were a student that I would probably just ask somebody else) or provide a bulleted list of things they think the professor could or should discuss or note in the letter.

I did the latter with these two students, and both of them returned basically a list of some key elements of their resume: leadership experience, club activities and so on, none of which I have any direct knowledge of. So, clearly I need to refine how I explain to askers what kind of list would be helpful to me.