Friday, February 13, 2009

'tis the season

We are currently deep in a season many of us in academia both enjoy and despise. It is Letter of Recommendation season.

This is the time of year that students are trying to line up internships, jobs, entry into graduate programs, etc...all sorts of things. If it requires an application, it usually requires a letter of recommendation from someone who knows the applicant and can assess the applicants abilities and temperament.

I get asked to write a lot of these. This year I was asked to write over 20 letters for 8 individuals, including 8 for one person. I'm sure more will roll in as deadlines loom.

Over my years of teaching, I have learned that writing a good letter of recommendation is more challenging than it seems. You must accentuate the positives of the applicant without ignoring the limitations of the student. I tell my students that I will try to write a favorable, yet honest letter. Both of our reputations are on the line. I will not lie or say things that I do not believe. Usually that isn't a problem because most of these students are superb and it is easy to write good things about them.

Sometimes, a letter is easy to write for the wrong reasons. I once had a student who was going to fail my General Chemistry course for the second time ask for a letter of recommendation. I don't remember what he was applying for, but it was a science related endeavor. I told him that any letter I wrote would not be positive given his record in my courses, and I suggested he ask someone else. He insisted that it had to be me. So, I wrote it.

I wrote the letter in the kindest way I could so when I wrote the phrase "I cannot in good faith recommend this person for this position" it didn't seem malicious. It was easy to write and it was short. I doubt he got the position.

On the other side of things, sometimes the student is so talented and qualified that I have to be careful not to sound like I'm practicing for the hyperbole championship.

I recently had one of my best students ever apply to med school. I wrote a two page letter describing how great she was and how she would be the best doctor in the world and she would cure cancer in her first year of med school and solve world hunger and etc... I worked pretty hard to tone down the rhetoric into a more sober and meaningful assessment of her abilities. She got accepted to med school. She starts in August. Cancer will be cured by January and world hunger by July. You're welcome.


the iNDefatigable mjenks said...

Fine, fine, let her cure cancer.

Keep her the heck out of neglected diseases, please.

Liberal Arts Chemist said...

Raise your hand all of us who has taken a previously written letter of reference for a different student and just copied in the second students name.

Bonus: did you feel guilty?

Extra bonus if you failed to remove all references to the first students name because you switched to a nickname partway through the letter.

Chemgeek said...

mjenks: She'll get to those in the 2nd year.

Liberal Arts: I have done things similar to this. I'm reluctant to do so for the reason you mention. I am freaked out (especially after doing a dozen letters) that I will miss a reference or name or something. I'm scared I'll recommend Susan in Jim's letter.

katiedid said...

Ah yes, I happen to be asking for these left and right lately... Hey, do you want to write me a letter of recommendation? ;)

Chemgeek said...

Katie: I know of a professor that told the students to write their own recommendation letter. He would read it and sign it. That part lazy and part genius. Since I'm 100%, send me a letter. I'll sign it.

milkshake said...

Chemgeek: Having students drafting their own letters is completely reasonable thing to do if the students are excellent. And I am all in favor to show the recommendation letter to every person that asks for it - before mailing it - to decide whether they want it or not; a mediocre recommendation is far worse than no recommendation all. You should not back-stab your students just because they are lousy in your class. Say no to them instead, avoiding the difficult letters will save you time and all the unpleasant equivocation. If you get a sudden phone call and you are asked about the particular student then you have to be honest but do not volunteer bad info on anybody - don't mix assessment with assassination.