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Letters of Recommendation for Grad School: Beware the Bad Letter-Writer

December 7, 2012

Back in the mid-1990s, I was collecting material for the first edition of a book on applying successfully to graduate school, and I interviewed several Graduate Program Directors and other university faculty members in a wide range of disciplines. The people I met were all insiders to the graduate-admissions process — graduate-school faculty members — the only true insiders. I have continued discussing grad school with other faculty colleagues, ever since. One topic that always comes up is the common shortcomings of grad-school applications that tend to lead to those applications being rejected. Turns out, there are a lot of common shortcomings, and students still make the same mistakes when applying to graduate school that I made, back in the mid-1980s! I was successful in my bid to get into grad school, but in retrospect, I was lucky in many respects, and it could have easily turned out differently.

Today’s blog post is about just one of the fatal flaws that can afflict an application to graduate school, but this is a particularly harsh one for students whose applications end up being rejected only because of this particular weakness. It’s a harsh one, I think, because this flaw is not the product of anything the applicant actually does, or fails to do. Instead, when this particular problem shows up, it’s more accurate to describe the applicant as an unfortunate victim.

Unintentionally screwed

I was a bit surprised the first time I heard about this problem from another graduate faculty member. But, I was a brand new assistant professor at the time (1994). Since then, I have heard it repeated by many others, and I have also seen it firsthand countless times over the years. The problem has to do with letters of recommendation, which, all too often, end up being of very low quality. Importantly, when I say “low quality” here, I’m not referring to the caliber of the applicants. Instead, I’m referring to the utterly awful job some referees do of writing recommendation letters!

There are good letter writers and there are bad letter writers. I’m not referring here to people who write good or bad things about a student. The fact is that some professors simply do not know how to write an effective letter of recommendation, even when they have only the most glowing regard for a student. And then there are the professors who don’t care enough to spend the necessary time writing a really effective letter for a strong student — professors who actually know how to write a good letter, but usually don’t.

Ineffective letters are usually short, one or two paragraphs, and describe the student’s qualities in vague or general terms. These can kill an application. Good letters should provide informative anecdotes or some other revealing evidence to back up the positive claims that they make about the student. Many professors do not put in the required effort to work those things into their letters. Some just fail to use good judgment, by including irrelevant, or sometimes, even inappropriate comments. A statement like, “This student rocks!” is going to have a bad effect, no matter what else is in the letter.

The effectiveness of a letter of recommendation depends on much more than simply how many good things the referees say about the student, or how well they back up their claims. It also matters how relevant the accolades are to the concerns of the potential graduate supervisor or admissions committee. The evaluation forms provided by some graduate programs request that referees comment on specific qualities of the students. For example, they might be especially interested in the students’ writing skills, commitment to a career in a particular field, and industriousness, to mention only a few. All too often, however, the referee ignores the instructions, or only partially follows them, and instead they just write what they believe is most important to include, which may be of significantly lesser importance to the people for whom the letter is intended.

I realize that the majority of students who are thinking of applying to grad school do not have an abundance of great options when it comes to professors to ask for a letter of recommendation. But, some do have more options for suitable referees than the number of required letters. So, those students have to decide whom to ask for one (Note: Do not assume it will be okay to submit more than the requested number of letters).

The main message here is worth repeating: Someone with high regard for a student can still write an ineffective letter of recommendation, one that does little to enhance the quality of the student’s graduate-school application (or scholarship, or job application). Professors who are bad at writing letters of recommendation do not come with signs or markings to distinguish them from those who are good at it. The only reliable indicator of a professor’s proficiency with letter-writing that is potentially visible to students is the track-record of advancement, or scholarships or fellowships, enjoyed by the professor’s former students. If a professor’s former students — undergrad, grad, or postdoc — tend to be successful, this is probably at least partly because the professor writes effective letters of recommendation.

Improving the odds

Although it’s not possible to completely eliminate the risk of having your grad-school application torpedoed by a poor letter of recommendation, there are several things you can do to make it less likely:

1. Make it easy for the referee.

Professors are busy people, and it takes time and effort to compile truthful, relevant and positive statements about a student, along with anecdotes or other evidence to support the claims. It can take even more time to compose it so it is truly convincing. Ease the burden on your referees by furnishing them with material they can use to prepare your letter. Provide them with as much relevant information about yourself as possible. Having the foresight to provide these materials might also add to your referee’s impression of your good judgment and consideration. Keep in mind that your referees will probably be busy writing for other students around the same time as yours. The easier you make their task of writing your letter, the more likely they are to spend the time and effort needed to make it a good one.

2. Give your referees the time they need to prepare a good letter.

Solicit your letters of recommendation a few weeks in advance of when you will be need them. Students often underestimate the amount of time that goes into writing an effective letter of recommendation. If someone takes only ten or twenty minutes to write a letter of recommendation for you, then it is not likely to be much of a letter; it might say only good things about you, but it probably will be ineffective. Don’t expect your letter to be anywhere near the top of your professor’s list of priorities. Your letters may be extremely important to you, but they probably won’t make it onto your professor’s top-10 list of things to deal with. Asking for a letter weeks in advance of an application deadline is no guarantee that your referees won’t still leave the task of writing them until the last minute and end up rushing anyway. It may, however, increase the likelihood that they will spend more time on your letters.

3. Solicit your letters in an appropriate manner

Your interpersonal and social skills may be described in the letter, and the impressions that you make when soliciting the letter may contribute to the referee’s attitudes about you. As we have already discussed, proper timing is important and it can be perceived as rude or inconsiderate when a request for a letter of recommendation comes too close to the deadline by which it is needed. Please read my previous post on how to properly request a letter of recommendation.

4. Don’t implicitly request a mediocre letter.

This tip couldn’t be expressed more clearly and succinctly than it is in the following quote I get from Dr. Matt Might, a computer science professor at University of Utah [He has a great website where he shares advice and insight on a range of topics relevant to science students at all levels of training (undergrad, graduate, postdoctoral)].

“When you ask for a letter of recommendation from a professor, don’t ask them if they can write a letter of recommendation. Of course they’ll say, “yes,” to that. Ask a professor if they can write a strong letter of recommendation. This provides them a way to say “no,” and saves you the embarrassment of a crappy recommendation letter.”

Dr. Might also has a lot of other good tips on how to get into grad school.

5. Show proper gratitude

Do not forget to express your gratitude for the time and effort your referees are going to spend trying to help you. Remember, a good referee who really wishes to help you will probably spend a considerable amount of time writing an effective letter of recommendation. When I write a letter for a very strong candidate, it usually takes me a few hours. This is a few hours of my time that I could have spent on something else. Your professors are probably busier people than they appear to be. You will owe them a great debt for this favor, whether or not their letters end up helping you get into graduate school.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. July 8, 2013 3:29 PM

    Dear Dr. Mumby,

    I just have one quick question. You mention evaluation forms or checklists in this blog, and in your very informative talk, you stated that some professors or programs will give almost greater consideration to the checklists than the letters themselves. I am not sure if the programs to which I am applying this fall require referees to complete these checklists – I cannot find them online. Does this mean the program does not require them?

    Thanks for your time.

    • July 8, 2013 8:43 PM

      No, it does not necessarily mean the referees won’t be asked to complete an evaluation form. Every year, fewer and fewer graduate programs use paper applications, so it is now common that applicants won’t see the evaluation form that their referees fill out. Just a few years ago, most schools still required applicants to download all the application materials, including the forms to print and pass along to referees, who would then mail the letter and evaluation form directly to the graduate school. For some programs, the referees would give them to the applicant in a sealed and signed envelope, to be submitted along with the other application materials.

      Today, most graduate schools in North America have a completely online application process. One unintended consequence of this evolution is that fewer applicants actually see the evaluation forms (although applicants could contact the programs to which they are applying and ask to see them). It’s easy to see how it turned out this way if we consider the ways that graduate schools tend to deal with online applications. One of the most common systems requires the applicant to set up an account with a preliminary application, at which time the applicant also provides an email address for each of the people who have agreed to serve as referees. The graduate school contacts the referees with information about how to sign into a website where they can complete an evaluation form and upload a letter of recommendation. Some programs require the applicant to pass along their application number or file number to the referees, who then go to the graduate-school website and enter this number to link to the applicant’s file.

      Importantly, although the changes I just described have made it more likely that applicants won’t actually see the evaluation form the referees complete, this doesn’t always mean they couldn’t see the form if they were to do a very thorough search of the program’s website. Some graduate schools or programs have complicated websites that are difficult to navigate for anyone who doesn’t work in an institution of higher education. I recommend a few good keyword searches on the graduate school website before deciding that you can’t find the forms the referees will be completing.
      – Dave

      • July 9, 2013 12:19 AM

        Wow! Thanks for your prompt and detailed reply.

        Take care,
        Clint

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