Monday, December 7, 2009

On Letters of Recommendation

This is the time of year when I get swamped with requests for letters of recommendation from students applying to graduate school, law school, and jobs. I think I have written letters for about 15 students so far this semester (which probably translates into about 40-50 actual letters) and I am expecting to do some more in the next few months.

I am always willing to write letters on behalf of my students and former students. Unlike some professors, I do not think I have ever turned down a request to write a letter. Having said that, I will regularly get requests for letters from students that I do not know very well. They may have taken me for a course, but I do not remember much about their academic performance. I will write a letter for a student like this, but I often tell them that there is not a lot I can say about them and perhaps they should think about asking a professor who they know a bit better. Yet even in situations like this, the student will ask me to write the letter anyway.

With all this in mind, here are a few of my rules for requesting letters of recommendation:
  • Get to know me. Stop by and chat during office hours. Come in to talk about your assignments. Ask for career advice. This needs to be done well before your senior year and you should really be in the habit of doing this throughout your college career. The more I know about you, the better the letter will be.
  • Try to ask for a letter of recommendation in a face-to-face meeting. This way I can chat with you about the kinds of programs you are applying to and the kind of goals you hope that graduate school will help you to achieve. Don't worry, I don't bite.
  • I like to have at least three weeks notice. Do not e-mail me a few days before the application deadline asking for a letter or recommendation. I will agree to write it, but it will be submitted late.
  • Most letters of recommendation can now be done on-line, but if I need to mail my letter the old-fashioned way make sure that you give me a self-addressed stamped envelope.
  • Make sure you give me some information about the graduate program to which you are applying. A link to a website is fine.
  • Give me a short portfolio, including some of the papers you wrote for my classes, a copy of your purpose statement, and an up to date resume. I prefer hard copies. If you are former student, let me know what you have been up to since you have graduated--especially if we have not been in touch.
I am sure that I can come up with a few more, but if students would abide by these rules my life would be a whole lot easier and students would get a much better letter.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Can you write an article on cultural decline in America? I am a student at Messiah and I am very upset at some of these students behavior. So much for chastity and living a Christian life. What's becoming of our country? How did we get there?

John Fea said...

Anonymous: I do not currently have a post on this topic in the works, but I would be very interested in chatting with you about some of your perceptions about Messiah College students and your ideas about the "cultural decline" of America. Shoot me an e-mail and we can set something up or you can find me in Boyer 258.