Letters of Recommendation: A Professor’s Point of View

In a previous post I set out some ground rules that I expect students to follow when asking me for a letter of recommendation. I have since posted a link to this post on my Messiah College website.

Mary Beard, who blogs at “A Don’s Life,” has the best reflection I have ever read on the anxiety a professor can feel when it comes to writing letters of recommendation.

I am now in the midst of the so-called “second wave” of letter writing. The first “wave” occurred last fall as students and former students began applying for graduate school. Now students, former students, and colleagues at other colleges and universities are applying for fellowships, scholarships, summer programs, etc… For whatever reason, I have gotten into the habit of writing many of my letters of recommendation on Saturday mornings. So here I am, with letters to be written and forms scattered all over my desk, blogging about letter writing instead of actually writing letters.

Having said all that, I agree wholeheartedly with Beard when she writes:

But let me make one thing clear right at the beginning: evaluating students, ex-students and colleagues is an important part of my job; I’m not complaining about being asked to do it (so no need to feel remotely guilty about asking me).

I hope my students take this statement seriously. I want to write letters for you because I want you to succeed. So ask away. But please try to follow my guidelines.

When it comes to remembering to write letters of recommendation, Beard has the same problem that I do:

For a start students email you to ask if you will do it — and as often as not you are supposed just to send the thing off, without any other request from the employer or university. Even if your email inbox is in a lot neater state than mine, the request can easily disappear up the opened messages and you simply forget about it (not like when it was sitting there looking at you on your REAL desktop). I now say to people who want me to write for them that it is their responsibility to make sure that I have done it. But I still panic in the middle of the night that I have forgotten one — and sometimes I have.

And then there are those helpful, but sometimes frightening, online reference submission forms. Here is Beard:

The next problem is that many educational institutions now have some version of online reference submission. Just occasionally this works a treat. You get a password, it opens up into a clear easy to use form, you get an acknowledgement when you have finished — and on the best systems the computer send you a reminder a few days before the deadline.

But not often. Sometimes the password doesn’t work. Sometimes the system is “down”. Then all you can do is sent frantic emails to whatever contact address the system allows you to have. It took me several days to submit a reference to the British Academy a few months ago — and I only managed it after someone in their office had pointed out that the colon in front of the password I had been sent was actually part of the password (not as I had assumed the colon in front of it). It’s all a race against time too. Because if you’re late they disable your password and without a tearful series of begging emails, and a few fibs about having been ill, they wont enable it again…

OK, back to the grindstone–I have letters to write! Who says professors don’t work on Saturdays!