The air is starting to cool. The days are getting shorter. The rain is coming back. It can only mean one thing – letter of rec season has returned (also, pumpkin spice everything).
Most of us have never received any formal training in how to write a letter of recommendation. Rather, we have pieced together a working knowledge of how to do it based on letters we have read, people we have talked to, and a liberal dash of discipline-specific intuition. By now, we are all veterans of many of these letters, which brings with it a sense of confidence and expertise in our writing. It can also lead to complacency: turns of phrase recycled one too many times or accolades that end up sounding so rehearsed that they lose their potency.
If you are concerned that your letters might be getting a little stale, it might be time for a refresher. To that end, I recently came across a wonderful online resource devoted entirely to best practices in writing letters of recommendation. It offers helpful advice on both appropriate content and engaging style (hint: don’t be boring, but no explosions), and includes a number of sample letters that will likely make you feel at least a little bad about your own. The full guide can be found online here.
It also concludes with some prescriptive ‘commandments’ about writing letters. Most will be familiar to anyone who has thought carefully about the function of such letters, but one in particular resonated with me: “We write letters as a professional courtesy and because others wrote them for us”. I am certainly guilty of thinking about letters in a more transactional way, as a debt that I owe to my students in exchange for their hard work in my courses. That may seem benign, but it I cannot help but think it colors my evaluations. If I agreed to write a letter for a student, then said student must have been great, or I wouldn’t have agreed to write the letter, right? It is my hope that a little reminder about the nature of the process can serve as a corrective to my own biases.