Making Rec Letter Writing Easier on Yourself–and more meaningful for everyone involved

I am not a fan of letters of recommendation–not because I don’t like writing them (I typically do) but because there is an inherent conflict of interest between the role of professor and letter writer: faculty want their students to get jobs, scholarships, grad school admission, etc. and are less concerned about whether your job, your scholarship, or your grad school finds the best candidate. In short, writing them typically serves the interests of the writer, not of the committee. Letters are also areas where racism, sexism, classism, ableism, anti-family bias, and other kinds of prejudice can creep in, diminishing the chances of success for scholars the world needs. Finally, we’ve all lost productivity by having to request, write, and read recommendation letters for jobs and candidates we know we’re going to get or who we’re not going to hire, yet academic jobs in particular continue to demand letters at the earliest stages of the process, despite them being only minimally predictive of success in many fields.

That said, of course I happily write letters for my students, and I do so as a good faith actor, not agreeing to writing them unless I believe that the student meets the minimum qualifications and that I can personally attest to this. My goal is to help students think precisely about their experiences align with the purpose of whatever they’re applying for, whether that is a position as a camp counselor or a scholarship or a tenure-track job. My hope is that this process challenges students to know themselves better and identify their own goals more clearly.

I recently left a position where I was regularly teaching 600 students a year, including our capstone course, so I’ve written a lot of letters. Here is my strategy for most letter writers:*

I indicate in the syllabus that I am eager to write letters of recommendation for students who earn As in the course or who earn Bs but who have demonstrated considerable growth as a student over the course of a semester. I remind them that the strongest letters come from faculty who have seen their development over several semesters and who teach classes that require student to demonstrate the skills or abilities required in the application. I alert students to the fact that I may decline to write a letter for them if I can’t speak to the skills or abilities needed but that I’ll also help them review their transcript for professors who might be able to speak to their fit for the application. I reiterate this common deadlines approach and remind them that they should request letters at least three weeks before they are due and that they should have a plan to manage their letters.

When a student asks for a letter, I send them a request for the following information:

  • Their name and any other names they might have used when taking a class with me
  • Their student ID
  • The semester they were first my student or when we first met, if it was outside the classroom, such as through volunteer work
  • All the classes they took with me, the semester they took it, their final grade in the course, and the topic of their major project for the course
  • A sentence or two about what about their work with me provides evidence that they are a good fit for the work they are applying for
  • Their overall GPA and their GPA in their major
  • A paragraph about why they are pursuing this application
  • If applicable, any weaknesses in their application that I can speak to. For example, if a student earned a low GPA in a major that wasn’t a good fit before switching to a major in my field, where they excelled, I can speak to that.
  • The exact job description
  • The due date
  • The person/place where this should be sent

If you use Google Suite tools at your college or university, you can easily create a Google Form to collect this information. No matter how you do it, remember that you are asking questions about academic information, so don’t access it at a coffee shop or other place without a secure login.

I typically share my letters of recommendation with students before I submit them, provided there is sufficient time to do so. This gives them time to correct any factual errors, and it also holds me accountable for not writing letters for students who aren’t excellent, as I wouldn’t want them to see faint praise.

This system makes it easy to write letters, since I can speak specifically about student work and connect it to the specific demands of the application. Need evidence that the applicant can work collaboratively? Master new content quickly? Take feedback? If there isn’t evidence of that in the student work, then I will help the student locate where on their transcript is evidence that they mastered this and coach them on how to request a letter from that faculty member. And if they did master it in one of my classes, the evidence will be in the description of their course work.

When I approach letters this way–as work teaching students how to know themselves better and how to analyze a job call for how it aligns with their talents, skills, and interests–then it is much more meaningful work. It’s not longer about jockeying my students into the top position, regardless of whether they are the best person for the work or whether the work is a good fit for them. It’s about teaching them how to find their place in the world, which is much more satisfying and, over the long term, I suspect more successful.

Above, Charles Joseph Natoire’s depiction of Athena, disguised as Mentor, providing guidance to Telemachus.

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*I use a different strategy for my capstone course. I’ll write about it in another post.

One thought on “Making Rec Letter Writing Easier on Yourself–and more meaningful for everyone involved

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  1. Getting requests for letters of recommendation is bothersome most of the time. That’s because I teach at Arizona State, where there are large classes, and discussion and presentation of material are just not possible. If a student emails me about a letter, it’s usually from a course I taught three years ago, and that was the only course that they took that I taught as well. Most of the time, I don’t even recognize their name.

    In such cases, I reply by saying that yes, I can do this, but I won’t be able to say anything that their transcript already says (i.e., how well they did in my class), that they’d be better asking someone who taught a smaller class, or someone that they took several classes from. A fair amount of time, this works. (And presumably, they get a better letter than I could have written.)

    If a student has done a special project with me (such as turning a course into an Honors Course), then I can say a bit more. I also have seen and talked with the student one-on-one, and I can say more. These tend to be the exception, rather than the rule, but I’m able to write (IMO) a much better letter.


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