Rethinking writing recommendation letters

In one of my monthly writing accountability groups (hosted by NCFDD and highly recommended), there was a discussion about all the work of writing letters of recommendation and the stress related to last minute requests. As I write this, my email box has a request for one right now along with a thank you note from a student who needed one last week.

With a goal of creating more work/life balance, I have added letters of recommendation (AKA Letters or Rec or LORs*) to my list of hacks for managing my time better. I thought I would share my retooling and open up a dialogue for those who also want to share strategies.

My story starts when I needed one such letter from a colleague and they were slammed but wanted to help me so they suggested that I write the first draft. To my surprise, I found the process to be extremely generative to imagine myself through a colleague’s eyes. It forced me to identify all the great stuff I do and own it–which is something I struggle with as a recovering perfectionist who has a relentless inner critic.

As a result of the experience, I decided to try the same strategy of putting the first draft on requestor. Since I teach writing, it was a natural progression for me to adapt this as a teaching tool for students and junior colleagues. The process allowed me help others improve their communication literacies, support them in reaching their goals, and take some work off my plate.

Below is the email I sent as a prompt. Feel free to steal or adapt this for your own use:

I am going to ask you write the first draft of the recommendation letter and I will tweak it. I put together and attached a few templates from letters I have written in the past and replaced names with STUDENT.

When you go through the templates, make revisions to reflect your situation and consider what words best describe you as a learner, researcher, and classmate. Here are the types of questions that I speak to in letters of recommendations because they help the admissions committee figure out if you are a good fit for their program and if you are likely to succeed in it. 

  • What type of student are you? 
  • Are you motivated and responsible?
  • What motivates you? 
  • What do you bring to the classroom community to enrich it for yourself and your fellow classmates?
  • Are you a strong researcher, writer, and communicator?
  • What are your strengths in these areas and what do they look like?
  • What makes you a good fit for the program(s)?
  • What might we have discussed in class, conferences, or in your papers that provides compelling evidence of these points.

It is important to know how to advocate for yourself and speak to your strengths in many professional arenas, yet many of us do not know how. Or worse, many of us have internal monologues about sharing successes as an indication of bragging. This sort of exercise can be super powerful for those people –many women, people of color, those in cultural contexts where speaking about one’s strengths is socially discouraged and vilified tend to benefit from this advice.

I have since used this with a few students and in asking them how it went, they reported that they felt more confident about their writing and their decision to pursue their goals after writing the letter. As an added bonus, I also learned more about them and their passions. Score!

While writing recommendations is an important part of the work we do to support our students and colleagues, this form of academic “service” is unfortunately often invisible because few people have good ways to note it on their CV and activity reports. The hours we spend writing letters to support the goals of others are hours we are not working to forward our own goals. But the hours we invest matter to the careers of those we want to support. Finding ways to make this happen without doing so at our own expense is vital.

What are some of your hacks with LORs?


*For a fun reading recommendation and to get a real taste of these such letters, I suggest reading–or better yet, listen to–the book Dear Committee Members, a satirical novel about a beleaguered professor of creative writing. According to the review in Good Reads, “his life is a tale of woe, and the vehicle this droll and inventive novel uses to tell that tale is a series of hilarious letters of recommendation that Fitger is endlessly called upon by his students and colleagues to produce, each one of which is a small masterpiece of high dudgeon, low spirits, and passive-aggressive strategies”.

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