It’s Letter Writing Season!

It’s that time of the year: letter writing season!  In my field, GRFP letters are due today, but there are letters for many other things –faculty jobs, grad school, fellowships, etc– typically due around now as well.

(As an important side note: get your letters for the NSF GRFP in on time!  A bit less than 10% of the GRFP proposals are not reviewed simply because us letter writers have failed and not submitted our letters by the deadline)

As I’ve been writing GRFP letters of rec, I’ve been thinking a lot about what makes a good letter, and realizing that this is yet another part of our jobs for which we are simply not trained.  Instead, we muddle along and seek out advice where we can get it, often at the last minute.  So one of my goals here is pass along the little that I *think* I know about letters, and also to aggregate advice for the future me into a handy resource.

Useful resources
A lot has been written about writing good letters of recommendation.  I’ve found the following sites the most helpful:

  • This publication from HHMI is a comprehensive source of information about writing letters of recommendation, and contains very helpful and detailed advice
  • As usual, The Professor Is In is another great resource.  In this case, her recommendations are geared towards letters for faculty positions but can be adapted for other situations.

My own experience
I’ve now been on a few search committees and seen a lot of variation among different letters, but still feel like I have yet to master the art of the recommendation letter. Now that I am writing my own letters, I truly appreciate the time and effort that it takes to write a strong letter, and hope that I am doing my students justice with their letters. Here are some of the things that I think matter, in no particular order

  • Be specific about the fit of the person for the opportunity. To do this, you need to know what opportunity the letter is being written for (e.g., which specific faculty job, which specific fellowship, etc). Some of this legwork is on the applicant- they need to provide you with enough information so that you can tailor your letter to the call. For example, NSF GRFP has specific points they want you to address and it’s helpful if applicants include this link in an email asking you for a letter of rec. Similarly, faculty positions often are for a candidate with a specific area of research, and candidates can communicate to their letter writers why they think they are a good fit for the job. But much of the onus is on the letter writer to actually read the directions and think deeply about how and why the applicant fits the opportunity, and then to appropriately tailor the letter.
  • Provide examples. The best letters I’ve seen have provided specific examples to support the grandiose statements that are often made about candidates. For example, rather than just saying “Candidate X has established hirself as an independent scholar”, provide an example of how they have done this.
  • Think about the wording and phrases you are using to describe different candidates. Often we unknowingly “damn with faint praise” or use words and adjectives that soften or harm our message. This happens especially to female candidates. This blog post summarizes the issue, while this article is a study on gender bias in letters of recommendation and also provides a good overview of other research on the topic. There is also this handy Gender Bias Calculator to help you assess the tone of your letter.
  • State the length of time and context(s) in which you have known the applicant. This helps readers understand the basis for your evaluation of a candidate.

This is by no means an exhaustive list.  What other key tips would you add to the list?


5 thoughts on “It’s Letter Writing Season!

  1. A colleague of mine has three ‘templates’ for letters that she modifies for each person – the “best I’ve ever seen” category, the “good”, and the “fine”. I’ve wondered whether I should even write for the ‘fine’ students, but often they don’t have anyone else to ask. When I do write those letters I struggle with balancing honesty and still giving them a good chance of getting accepted to the program/job/fellowship/etc. I’d be curious to hear how others deal with those decent, but not great, students that need letters.

  2. I think that it is important to be honest with the person when they ask. I try to be positive, but also realistic. Someone once told me about how they had told someone basically “I think your strengths are A,B,C” so if you want a letter for something in which those things are important it will be a strong letter, if not then it may be better to ask someone else. This is not an easy conversation to have with someone but they honestly are better off asking someone else if you can’t be reasonably positive about them.

  3. Thanks for posting this! Four students asked me to write GRFP letters but not a single one provided me with the link describing what they were looking for. I still had time to revise the ones I had already uploaded to address specific points outlined in the FAQ.

    The one other thing I would add to your list is to keep reference letters to two pages. I loathe reading those endless research descriptions that force me to comb through for actual comments about the applicant’s abilities or notable traits. Keep the ratio of useful information to word count high – the applicant has already described their research, but the committee wants to know what YOU really think of them.

  4. Thanks for all the comments. I absolutely agree that you need to be honest with students about what kind of letter you would write if you agree. I had a difficult situation with an undergraduate recently where I told her that I would be able to write a positive but not particularly deep letter, since I didn’t know her very well, and told her what kinds of attributes I COULD comment on (similar to AEM). She was not particularly happy about it and it was a difficult situation, but I think it’s ultimately better for the student to know (in general) what kind of letter they are getting.

  5. I was spared having to write letters for students I didn’t really know, though my dear love has, and tries to explain as gently as possible that, yes, you were probably a good student, one of the 105 taking one of the three sections of that course six semesters ago, and …

    Some of them want the letter anyway, which suggests terrifying things about their relationships with professors since.

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