|Letters of Recommendation:
A Guide for Students
|Joseph J Palladino, University of Southern Indiana
Mitchell M. Handelsman, University of Colorado at Denver
Every year thousands of psychology students try to decide on which faculty members they will entrust with their futures. No, we are not talking about some form of brain surgery--we are talking about letters of recommendation, especially those written for applicants to graduate school. Let's face it, no one looks forward to this exercise in tree killing. Students don't want to ask, believing that faculty members are too busy. What many students don't realize is that faculty members really don't want to write the letters as much as students hate to ask. Faculty have an aversion to writing these letters for many reasons: (a) they don't like to write anything that doesn't count as a publication, (b) they find it hard after three years to think of new adjectives, especially when they have 100+ letters to write for students who are applying for the same graduate programs, (c) all their students seem to be in the top five, and faculty don't like to face the mathematical impossibility, (d) they really can't say anything negative even though they may want to, and (e) they realize that admission committees have yet to determine how to identify which of the thousands of applicants is really the one who will be a star (or, at least, not make too much trouble).
Given this natural reluctance by faculty to write letters, it is very important for students to approach faculty members in the most effective way possible. For example, the following are not good ways to begin this conversation:
- "You probably don't remember me, but . . ."
- "I was a student in your intro psych class eight years ago, and . . ."
- "I'm desperate; no one else will write me a letter."
- "The dean said I should ask you because you apparently have lots of free time on your hands."
- "I hope you were able to recover from the injuries you suffered when I overreacted to the grade you gave me on my term paper last year."
It may be much better to try something a little more positive. For example, you could bound into the professor's office and say, "Congratulations! I just heard you've been voted Professor of the Year! Well deserved! Well deserved!" If your professor is like most professors, he or she will believe this news and be grateful to you for being the first to let him or her know. In this case, just make sure the professor writes the letter before the actual PotY is chosen. If the professor doesn't believe the news, you can talk for a while about how these awards are fixed. While this academic bonding is taking place, you can slip in your request for a letter.
As hard as it may be to ask a professor for a letter, it is worth the effort. We recommend that you refrain from giving up and have the following individuals write you letters instead: judges you have appeared before, parole officers, your first-grade teacher (when she said she thought you could grow up to be president, she thought that was a compliment and a reflection of your academic success).
Over the years we have both written and read many letters of recommendation. Based on these experiences, we would like to present what we have found to be some of the most common phrases used in letters of recommendation. This should help students who may want to give some suggestions to their professors, and it should help professors to avoid the "cliches." We've organized this by part of the letter: There is the Opening where the faculty member will tell the committee how glad he/she is to have been asked to write this letter. Then, we shift to the part we call the Connection, where the writer tries to convince the readers that he/she actually knows the student. After this we move onto what in most cases is a lengthy section of Superlatives where the writer waxes poetic concerning the student's abilities to leap tall buildings in a single bound, stop bullets in the teeth, and edit papers without having to refer to the APA Publication Manual. After three to four pages of these superlatives, the faculty member will turn to a Prediction about the student's future work. In the Summary is the obligatory ranking of the student. Finally, we have the Offer to Provide More Information.
Here is the way most letters start, with some of the most common second phrases we've seen:
"------ has asked me to write a letter of recommendation in support of his/her application to your graduate program and
- it is my pleasure to write on his/her behalf."
- it is my pleasure to write because this counts as community service at my college."
- he/she would not leave until I agreed."
- he/she is very convincing; so is his/her attorney."
- I've been sick recently and thought that I need to do some good deeds."
- the court would not issue a restraining order."
It is critical to convey in what capacity the professor has known the student and the nature of their relationship. Some favorites:
- "------ was a student in all six classes I teach, and was even a student in one class three times, so I know this student very well."
- "------ was my student, research assistant, teaching assistant, and part-time gardener. However, since our divorce we haven't spoken much about her professional plans."
- "------ and I could not have been closer. In fact, I sense this closeness as I am typing this letter. It is almost as if he/she is looking over my shoulder."
- "This student was usually out standing (in the Campus Center) during much of the semester."
- "Although I do not recognize ------, he/she claims to have been a student in my class four years ago. My records indicate that no student by this name was enrolled, but I will take his word because he/she is bigger, faster, and stronger than I."
No letter of recommendation would be complete without a litany of unique and outstanding accomplishments. Among them:
- "Of the many students I have known, ------ has managed to create quite a record. Of course, this required a great deal of time, and he/she is not quite finished serving time."
- "------ is truly one of the most outspoken students I have ever had in my class. In the event you manage to get a word in edgewise, please let me know."
- "Do not be put off by ------'s numerous peccadilloes; these may provide fruitful opportunities for funded research in the future. In addition, his/her presence will insure that you can spell peccadillo."
- "I've put up with ------ for eight of the longest years of my career, now it's your turn. Please take him/her off our hands."
- "------ took my class via distance education (or someone by this name took my class). Either ------ or the person who actually took the class is a truly qualified graduate school candidate. Anyone who can break into the secure servers we use to protect exams has the kinds of skills you need in administration."
Even though it is always implied, letters must make some prediction about a student's future:
- "When the number of Nobel Prizes expands, there surely should be one waiting for a person with the talents displayed by ------."
- "With his/her background, a career in forensic psychology should be a natural."
- "I know that ------ will be a great student in future years."
- "I don't know of anyone I'd rather see go to your program."
- "------ reminds me very much of myself when I was a student. Remember that when it comes time to make your decision."
The summary often consists of one sentence: the ranking. "------ is one of the top ------ students I've had in my 15 years of teaching." The choices for the rank are limited. If the professor remembers your name and you haven't been too obnoxious asking for a letter, the number is 3. If the professor remembers you all too well, the number is 5. If the professor cannot remember you, or still holds a grudge about that lawsuit, the number is 10. In no case is the number higher than 10.
Offer to Provide More Information
This offer is usually the last line of the letter: "If I can provide more information, please contact me at 303-555-XXXX." If professors really want to say some bad things about you, they will underline and italicize the word please. Otherwise, you can tell how much they like you by whether they give their real number.
We trust this information will be as helpful as all the other information we've provided to you over the years.
Copyright 2002 (Volume 6, Issue 2) by Psi Chi, the
International Honor Society in Psychology
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