Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Letters of Recommendation

Although the time for letters has past for the fall, I suspect that many of us will be writing letters in the spring for our students, either for college/university acceptance.  Because of the perception of psychology teachers as having some kind of special knowledge/insights about people, we are often asked for letters.

While I am no expert, based upon what I have seen on college forms, I tend to use the following points as I write:
  • Who the student is and the purpose of the letter
  • How I know the student-context, length of time and how well 
  • Personality characteristics of the student
  • Highlighting the academic record of the student
  • Highlighting the community service and activities of the student
  • Experiences that I know about--how they have helped the student grow as a person/student
  • How the above points will make the person successful in college/worthy of the scholarship
  • Reiteration of positives and contact information
The halo effect tends to take place with me.  I only will write letters for those students whom I know fairly well and who I feel I can write a good letter for.  If I see a negative, I tend to simply omit that aspect of the student or couch it in terms that makes it more positive.  I've read about teachers and professors getting sued for "negative" letters. 

When in doubt, I say something like, "I'm not sure I know you well enough to write a letter that will be good/effective enough for you.  Try checking with other teachers who have known you longer."

I also ask the student to provide me with an unofficial transcript, an activities sheet (like a resume), and some sort of self-reflection on the kinds of things they would like me to be able to provide them.  I also ask for two weeks.

What do all of you think?  It would be great to hear from all those letter writers so we can share our collective wisdom and experience.



Jennifer Collison said...

Whew, I can relate to the polite refusal. It's even harder when I've known the student for a long time and can't quite bring myself up to writing to the standards I know the school will require.

For example, I direct my school's theatre productions. I have an actor that I've known for four years, that has had two bit parts in our shows, but doesn't really demonstrate the insight, charisma, and dedication needed to take things to the next level, theatrically speaking. Now, she wants a recommendation letter for admittance into her university's School of Theatre. She wants to be a Broadway star. Is it wrong to say something cliche like "With additional exposure and experience, little Susie's star could shine more brightly"? After all, if the department doesn't take this not-so-subtle hint, she could get in and risk disappointment. Then again, isn't disappointment (and success) possible anyway? Any additional thoughts would be helpful.

Steve said...

I recently wrote recommendations for a prestigious scholarship in which I had to watch a multi-part video to discover what this organization wanted in their recommendation letters. The short version is: they wanted vivid anecdotes. They didn't want us to repeat that Johnny was bright or that Jasmine was talented, but wanted us to focus on specific incidents that revealed these traits. I think we should remember this so that our letters are personalized and don't sound generic.

Nancy said...

I have found that when writing letters of recommendation that it is helpful to have a large list of phrases,verbs, and adjectives so that I can make each letter more unique. I have used a book called Effective Phrases for Performance Appraisals by James E. Neal Jr. Although the book is designed for business use I have found it very helpful. It is inexpensive - about $12 at the bookstore.

Anonymous said...

Some phrases I just found that may help with recommendations:
Deals effectively with a wide variety of people

Displays appropriate interpersonal skills

Listens carefully and accurately

Shows initiative and persistence

Exhibits effective time management

Holds high ethical standards and expects the same of others

Handles conflict successfully

Speaks articulately and persuasively

Works productively as a member of a team

Plans and carries out projects successfully

Thinks logically and creatively

Remains open-minded during controversies

Identifies and actualizes personal potential

Writes clearly and precisely

Adapts easily to organizational rules and procedures

Comprehends and retains key points from written materials

Gathers and organizes information from multiple sources

Chuck Schallhorn

Anonymous said...

For the actor, I would write something like, "I saw the performer in plays A, B, and C. She had her best performance in A. I suspected she needed to grow into the roles in B and C." Perhaps that could work