Student letters of recommendation

CC Images Courtesy of Jan Jaromír Horák

 

As we approach the end of a semester or academic year, we are sometimes flooded with requests from students to write them letters of recommendation. I’m usually honored to be asked to write these letters, and I usually look forward to working on them but only if they are warranted and meet the criteria that I establish for the students requesting the letter.

Screening and Managing Student Letters of Recommendation Requests

As faculty, our duties and responsibilities extend way beyond the classroom, and while we are typically compensated for working 40 hours a week, many of us actually invest 60-80 hours or more engaging in campus related work. Due to our limited time, we need to be selective about who we write recommendations letters for and when.

To manage these requests, I’ve developed a system to screen the requests and the people applying for them. The system is quite simple and includes two things: defining the need and meeting the criteria.

1. Defining The Need:

Some students will contact me and ask for a letter of recommendation without really knowing why they want it. They believe that it may be helpful to them, but they don’t necessarily have a specific use for it. So, before entertaining the idea of writing a letter, I’ll ask my students why they want the letter. The four most the common responses I receive are split between legitimate and non-legitimate needs.

The legitimate needs include these two responses:

  • “I need it for a scholarship application.”
  • “It is required for my transfer application.”

The non-legitimate needs include these responses:

  • “I don’t know. I think it will help my transfer application.” (Even though they’ve already been accepted into their transfer school)
  • “I think it might help me get a job.”

I automatically reject the latter responses since there isn’t a credible reason to warrant the letter. If a student has already been accepted into a transfer school, they don’t need a letter of recommendation. And secondly, employers typically do not require a letter of recommendation unless the position is within an academic setting. Since my students are entering the hospitality industry, a letter of recommendation is practically meaningless for employment purposes.

2. Meet The Criteria

Once the need for a letter has been defined or in other words once I have established that the student requesting the letter has a legitimate need for it, I then proceed to the second step in my system, which is to ensure the student requesting the letter meets my criteria.

If a student needs the letter of recommendation for a scholarship or transfer application, I’ll consider writing the letter if the student is able to meet the following criteria:

  1. must have been a student in my classes for at least one academic year
  2. completed all of my classes and core classes with a grade of B or higher
  3. have GPA of 2.5 or higher
  4. met with me in person at least once for academic or career advisement
  5. include a current and detailed resume with request
  6. include a one page personal statement providing a summary of student’s background and academic and professional goals.
  7. the request must be submitted at least 2 weeks in advance

In addition to the above list, I will also assess my professional experience with the student requesting the letter. Just because a student meets the above criteria, it does not mean that I will automatically write a letter for him or her.

When I write a letter, I do my best to craft a strong and confident letter that achieves the objective for which it was designed. If the student needs the letter to get into a particular school or earn a scholarship, I want to make sure that I do everything I can to help him or her. I’m proud to say that to date each letter I have written has accomplished that objective.

There are times when  a student will meet the criteria I’ve established, but it may be necessary for me to decline their request on other legitimate grounds. For instance, a student who has exhibited conduct that would compromise my confidence in them, such as: being unreliable, failing to meet certain obligations, alcoholism or drug addiction.  

Declining Requests For Letters of Recommendation

If I have any reservations about a student, I will politely decline the request and recommend that the student ask another faculty. The reason that I decline is because when I write a letter, I’m placing my professional reputation on the line to recommend someone, and I will never do so if I have no confidence in that person.  

Here’s an example, I once had a student that met the criteria that I’ve established. The student was extremely intelligent, had a terrific personality, and was highly engaged in class and on campus. However, this particular student was also highly unreliable, had an atrocious attendance and punctuality record, as well as an addiction to marijuana and alcohol. There was no way I was ever going to write this student a letter. This student had a lot of potential, but I’d worked with her long enough to know that she was unwilling to acknowledge that she had a problem and, therefore, did not see the need to change her behavior or seek professional help.

Last Minute Requests

I was at a meeting on campus, and one of my colleagues sitting next to me had a look of frustration, and shared with me that a couple of students contacted her and requested a letter of recommendation and expected the letter within a couple of days. My colleague felt pressured and frustrated because she was already busy and did not have anytime in her schedule to write the letters; however, she felt obligated to do so. There was a feeling that the students’ entire future depended on these letters and failure to provide the letters meant that the faculty was ruining their lives.

Some faculty view students as kids which is unfortunate because it sometimes creates an environment where some faculty take on a parental role and feel the need to shelter these so-called “kids” and protect them from some of their poor planning habits, rather than using it as a learning opportunity.

The students themselves are ultimately responsible for their own lives and destiny, not the faculty writing them the letter of recommendation. Students need to do a better job planning these requests and then need to bear the consequences of not doing so.  As the saying goes,

“Failure to plan on your part, does not constitute an emergency on my part.”

I’m not going to drop everything on a dime because a student did not have the foresight to request the letter within a reasonable amount of time.

So, when I get last minute requests, I typically decline them, especially since my criteria requires a two week advance notice. I love helping students, but I need to manage my limited time effectively and accepting these last minute requests often tend to sabotage my efficiency. Moreover, doing these last minutes requests seem to generate more of them. Students have a tendency to talk with one another and share experiences. If you agree to write a last minute letter of recommendation, before you can even blink, you’ll start receiving requests from your other students who heard that you were kind enough to whip up a quick letter for Sally, and could you please write one for them as well.

What To Write

If you decide to write your students a letter of recommendation, write it from the heart. If you’re going to take the time to write a letter of recommendation, do your best to ensure that it achieves the purpose for which it will be used.  Avoid writing weak letters that are not heartfelt, lack details, or fail to instill confidence in a student’s ability or potential. Weak letters of recommendation may actually hurt a student’s application.

Base the letter on your experiences with your students, and be sure to incorporate what they may have listed on their personal statement or resume. Be careful not to write anything in the letter that would violate any privacy laws.

There are tens of thousands of examples of letters or recommendations for students on the internet, so I won’t include a sample, but if you’d like to see some examples, just Google it!

I searched for the keywords, “sample letter of recommendation for students” on Google and the search result yielded over 57,000 samples. Modifying the search terms will yield even more samples. So rather than providing an example, I’ll simply share the things that I typical include in my letters of recommendation.

I tend to include the following five things about a student in the letter of recommendation:

  1. how long I’ve known the student and in what capacity
  2. my general observations of the student in class and of his or her performance in any extracurricular activities such as club events, competitions, or volunteer activities
  3. a brief summary of his or her leadership, volunteer, or professional experiences
  4. his or her academic and professional goals
  5. why he or she should be selected for admission into their transfer school or why the students deserves the scholarship he or she are applying for. This is also where I would include how the student could or would benefit the institution granting admission or the scholarship.

I usually conclude my letters with an affirmation of my confidence in the student and allude to the mutual benefit to the student and the institution receiving the letter.

So to recap, here are the four things that you should do before you consider a student’s request to write a letter of recommendation:

  1. Screen Requests: Determine whether there is a legitimate need for a letter.
  2. Establish Criteria: I’ve shared that criteria that works for me; you’re welcome to adopt it or to develop a completely new list.
  3. Decline Requests: If you have any reservations about writing a letter or receive a last minute request with an unreasonable deadline, it’s OK to decline the request.
  4. Quality Recommendation: Write the letter from the heart. If you choose to write a letter of recommendation, write it from the heart and include specifics about the student based on your experiences and observation of her.

Well, I hope you found this article useful. If you did, I’d be grateful if you’d help spread the word by sharing this with friends or colleagues on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, and LinkedIn.

Dr. Al-Malood

Dr. Fawaz Al-Malood is Founder | Blogger | Podcaster @ FacultyWorkshop.com. He is also a Professor and program director at a large community college in California.