There may be a point in your career when you are asked to write a letter of recommendation as an academic. As a full-time faculty member, I have had students, colleagues, and mentees request letters of recommendation from me. While this post will lean more toward helping faculty manage expectations and navigate the process of writing a letter of recommendation for students, this information can also be applied to writing recommendations for colleagues and mentees as well. While writing a recommendation may seem simple, it can be easier said than done. Therefore, this article will provide some strategies for faculty when electing to write a letter of recommendation.
1. Establish Expectations for How/When Students Should Request
This is one of the most critical steps in the recommendation process. I set expectations with my students from the very beginning. As stated in another post, Tomlin, Colbert, and Spivey speak of encouraging students to make themselves known. So, as I encourage my students to do this, I let them know that you must request it at least three weeks in advance if you ever need a recommendation from me. I do not consider requests if there is less than three weeks’ advance notice. For me, this is because it takes me roughly that much time to manage my schedule and other obligations in order to write a strong, solid, and personable, and individualized recommendation. Therefore, unless it is an actual last-minute emergency which I determine on a case-by-case basis, all late requests will be declined. Additionally, three weeks gives me enough time to review the request and decide if I am the best faculty member for the task.
So, faculty, my tip for you is to be very clear and intentional with your students about how and when they should submit a request to you for a letter of recommendation. Remember, you get to set the time span; just be sure you can manage and keep this time span consistent for your students.
2. Be Clear on Your Role as Recommender
In the past, students have asked me for letters of recommendation, and because of my willingness and eagerness to help, I jumped at the opportunity without hesitation and automatically said yes without knowing what the student is actually requesting. Currently, in my approach, it is not that I am hesitant; however, I get more curious about what the student needs from me. There are many reasons a student may request a recommendation. A request could be for a new employment opportunity, college admission, society or professional organization, etc. Therefore, it is important to ask some questions to learn more about what the student is applying for and/or trying to achieve. I also want to know what the student’s interests are in the potential opportunity and their motivation for pursuing this opportunity. These small but intimate details provide me with more information to decide if I am the best candidate to write the letter of recommendation.
With this, strategy #2 for faculty is to be clear on what the student is asking of you. Additionally, it is essential to know if the student would like a drafted letter of recommendation or ask you to complete a check the box form that will serve as the official recommendation. In my experiences, it is usually both that will need to be completed.
3. Be Mindful of The Timeline
Outside of setting the expectation of how far in advance you would like for students to request the letter of recommendation, you should also be mindful of the due date for the letter of recommendation. Be sure to ask the student when all documents or materials must be submitted for the letter of recommendation. If I agree to write the letter, I aim to have all materials submitted at least a week and a half before the actual due date. This will provide me with some buffer room and ensure that I am not working until the last minute. As a recommender, you should also inform the student when you intend to submit the recommendation to keep them in the loop.
4. Provide an Official Answer to The Request
While this may seem obvious, it is also essential to this process. After reviewing the request to make an informed decision about completing the request, you should formally respond to the student. You should also be sure to respond to the student quickly as to if you can or cannot provide a recommendation. I aim to provide my students with a response to their request within 48 hours. This will ensure transparency and allow students to look for other recommenders if I decide that I am not the best person to write the letter. So, faculty, be sure you have a reasonable response time to communicate an official acceptance or rejection of the request. As faculty, we must be aware of all of our obligations, and there should be no shame in not being able to say yes to every recommendation request. As stated in another post, Tomlin and Brad encourage faculty to know their limits. So, I encourage you to know what you can and cannot take on and if you decline the opportunity, consider providing the student with an explanation.
5. What You Should Include in Your Recommendation
When writing the recommendation, you want to highlight the student’s talents and accomplishments to what they are applying for. If you cannot do this, you may not be the best person to recommend and encourage the student to seek another recommender. Some standard questions/prompts to consider when drafting your letter of recommendation include:
- Your relationship to the student and in what capacity you know their work ethic and potential on an intimate level.
- The reasons you recommend the student for this opportunity.
- A “WOW” factor. Something that sets this student apart from others.
- How this opportunity will continue to help the student reach their goals.
- Evaluation of the students “fit” for this opportunity.
- Your credentials and factors that make you reputable.
Do you have additional tips to add to the list? Or have specific examples of letters of recommendations? I would also like to hear what your experience and process of writing letters of recommendation have been. Feel free to send your responses via Twitter @TomlinAntione so that we can continue this conversation!
Dr. Antione D. Tomlin earned his PhD in Language, Literacy, and Culture from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and is an assistant professor & Chair of the Academic Literacies Department at Anne Arundel Community College.
Any opinions, findings, and conclusion or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the view of Interfolio.