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.



Anonymous said...

The first few times I requested for a letter of reference, I was asked to write a list of my achievements (academic and extra curricular) and a list of my strong points (hard-working, willing to learn, demonstrate resourcefulness, etc).

Overtime, the professors I approach have kind of known me so well that they just know what to write. That is because I took the time to "share some news" with them whenever I see them on campus.

I feel that these "3-minute news-sharing chats" are very important because it is through these conversations that other professors (other than our Advisors) get to know what we are currently doing.

Cynthia said...

I often ask my students to include a brief statement about why they are applying for the specific program and what they think they experienced in undergrad that will aid them in that program. Something like a letter of intent they might submit. I find that this at least gets me on a similar frame of mind with the students.

Ms.PhD said...

I think you're right- most people don't know how to write strong letters, and many of us don't know the best way to request them, or how to help the people we've asked to do the best job of it.

Personally, the last couple of years I've had two students who were NEVER punctual, and not particularly apologetic about it.

Punctuality has suddenly gone way back to the top of my list as a sign of taking the job seriously, respecting my time, being committed to the work, etc. A minimum requirement, but one of the most important, if that makes sense. I associate it with what I like to call give-a-shit. Too many students really don't.

Participating fully in class? That's also huge, and in my experience, a standout quality. Most students keep their mouths shut, and the classes suffer for it.

But I agree, you need a little more to go on.

Did you ever consider asking the student to come meet with you, as per Clarissa's suggestion that contact time is helpful?

I always wonder why, if I've asked someone to do something and they're not sure how, they never come back and ask me about it. I have this problem equally with PIs and students. When did we start equating asking questions with stupidity, instead of with smarts? How am I supposed to know what they know or don't know, if they don't communicate that to me at all?

Unknown said...

Thanks for the post...I think you're right- most people don't know how to write strong letters, and many of us don't know the best way to request them, or how to help the people we've asked to do the best job of it. ....

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Anonymous said...

It sounds like you're a pretentious dick.

The student cared enough to show up and put up with your bullshit. Write the letter.