Last spring, Peter received a request from a professor at a college whose alums frequently apply to Fletcher: What suggestions might the Admissions staff pass along to professors or other writers of academic recommendations? Believe me, we jumped into action! It’s impossible to read recommendations without developing opinions on them. As a recommendation requester, how can you use these suggestions? I’ll be honest — I’m not sure. I think it’s going to depend on your connection to/relationship with the recommender. For example, if there’s an anecdote that you would like shared (tip #9), be sure to mention it to the recommender. So here, for you to use as seems appropriate, are our recommendations for recommenders:
1. Be honest with the student if you can’t write a supportive letter. We always feel bad for applicants who have a particularly negative recommendation, as they will never know, and that just doesn’t seem fair.
2. Review the applicant’s résumé and discuss his/her objectives and goals, so that the letter can be targeted, instead of generic. Knowing a tiny bit about Fletcher helps, too. (For example, despite the formal name of the School, we are not a law school.)
3. Ask the student if there are aspects of his/her academic background that could use a little explanation.
4. If your school or program is not well known to the wider world, introduce it. But don’t use up too much of the letter’s space on the introduction if the result will be that the student is barely described.
5. Use sparingly comments such as “one of my top five students in 25 years of teaching.” (Thus, they are taken more seriously when used). On the other hand, it is useful when recommenders mention what percent of students get an A in the class. (Reading “Only 10 percent of the class received an A” helps us put grade inflation in perspective.)
6. Indication of why a student succeeded (or failed) in a class is helpful. Even if it seems obvious that an A demonstrates the student’s strength, it’s helpful to learn why. “Earning an A in this class demonstrates that so and so wrote well/conducted high quality research/solved problems in a creative way/spoke up a lot in class.” The academic recommendations are one of the few qualitative ways we have to understand a student’s academic capacity, so it is helpful to understand how a student excels (not simply that the student did excel).
7. Be sure to note it if a student took the time to get to know you outside of class (through research, office hours, etc.). This is often a helpful indicator of how they will act in graduate school.
8. A letter shorter than a full page may be too short. Longer than two pages may be too long.
9. Anecdotes are nice! Adds flavor to the letter.
10. Avoid proofreading errors. It’s easy for us to read past the problem (calling Richard “Robert,” or mentioning SIPA in a letter for a Fletcher application), but it does make us wonder how much the recommender has tailored the letter to the applicant.
And that’s it: Our Top 10 List of Recommendation Recommendations. With thanks to David Chioni Moore for giving us the idea of collecting them.