Recommendation letter guidelines

by Carl Dyke

Finally got around to writing a draft of this after years of wishing this was stuff students already knew and playing keystone-cops catch-up each time it turned out sure enough they didn’t. Suggestions welcome!

Dyke Recommendation Letter Guidelines

So you want a letter of recommendation from me. I’m happy to do it, and it’s part of my job! However, please read this handout about the process carefully. Your role is not over when I agree to write the letter. Our collaboration is just beginning.

First, you should know that sometimes letters of recommendation are formalities. They just want someone trustworthy other than you and your Mom to go on record that you’re not a complete waste of space and maybe even know a few things. If you know for a fact that this is the case for the present letter, please tell me. That kind of letter is much easier to write and like most people, I don’t enjoy wasting effort.

If the letter is not a mere formality, we’re going to need to work together to put you in the best possible light. This is not the time to be bashful and modest, because you’re up against serious competition. I’m going to need to say some things that distinguish you positively from all the other applicants. You should know that adjectives are not going to get it done. Everyone has letters that say they’re great, fantastic, wonderful, outstanding, quite possibly the best, etc.. Those letters may get you in the game, but they don’t win because all the letters say that. So for the win I’m going to have to be as specific as possible about why you’re great.

Now the thing is, if any part of our work together was before last week, I do not remember those specifics. I have a warm and fuzzy feeling about you, which is why I’ve agreed to write the letter. But I don’t remember why I feel that way because one, I have about a hundred students a semester and two, part of how I stay fresh in my profession is that I let the present crowd out the past in my working memory. (We’ll call this my zen so I don’t sound so much like a flake.) And obviously my own vague warm fuzzy feelings are not going to be persuasive to anyone else, which is something I’m sure you remember learning in my class, unless like me you don’t remember exactly where you learned things.

All this means you’re going to have to remind me, in writing because I don’t remember so well, what it was you did that gave me my happy feelings about you. Give me topics and summaries of work you turned in; tell the stories of our good times together; list the courses and expound on what you got out of them. If you have samples of your work with my comments, pass them back. Anything you can do to refresh specific memories that I can use to add concrete dramatic nouns and verbs to vague superlative adjectives will strengthen the letter I can write for you and improve the chances that it will actually do some good.

It would also be terrific if you could help me tailor my praise to the specific need. Think about this: what are the things I can say about you that you can’t credibly say about yourself? How can I fit a niche in your recommendation strategy, that is, say things that are not just being repeated by you and your other recommenders? Also, what exactly are you applying for and what subset of your general awesomeness are they actually interested in? Let’s not waste time and credibility telling them you can dunk or pull a mean espresso shot if what they care about is your ability to analyze and communicate about information. Speaking of which, did they give you any clues as to what they’re looking for? If you can pull out key quotes that show where they’re coming from (like you did in your papers for my class, no doubt, or I wouldn’t be writing you this letter) it would help me a bunch, and remind me again why I like you so much.

If there are official forms and envelopes, prepare them for me in a tidy, well-marked packet that I can find again easily in the clutter on my desk. I’ve got letterhead covered. Finally, you should know that I’m not going to work on this until the deadline is near. You need to tell me well in advance, in writing, when that deadline is, along with anything else I need to know about the process to calibrate my procrastination responsibly. It would also be extremely wise of you to gently nudge me as that date approaches, while being very careful not to nag. Just check in. I am not a letter-writing appliance that you can turn on and forget; I am a human being with most of the usual quirks and some of my own, and loads of other stuff on my plate. Remember that as much as I genuinely care about you and your success, you care about them more: they are yours, so keep on top of things.

OK – if you’re cool with all of this, let’s do it!

3 Responses to “Recommendation letter guidelines”

  1. Marvelous! Says he, sitting in a pleasant Irish pub in Fairfax, VA; another summer with grandkids.

  2. Oh yeah, that’s the way to do it.


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