letters of recommendation — some tips
‘Tis the season… I get the polite-but-nervous phone calls for MIT applicants who are setting up their interviews (side note: if your alma mater does alumni interviews, and you’ve been thinking about it but haven’t tried it, try it! This is my 12th year doing it, and it’s always fun and interesting to get to meet the kids), and, from parents and kids, I’m getting questions about how to handle the whole letter of recommendation thing. I’ve also just gone through a six-year period of my life in which I had to be the recommendee on a yearly basis. Ugh. And I’ve been both a writer of letters and on admissions committees reading them. All sides of the desk.
I also know that, well, let’s say this nicely… sometimes it’s hard for kids to hear stuff from their parents that might seem like common sense, and sometimes it’s easier to hear it from someone else. So, let me offer a few tips.
Numero uno. I know, this might sound dorky. But really. Make it easy and pleasant for the person writing the letter. It may be part of their job (and, by the way, many people who write letters as part of their jobs, myself included, quite enjoy doing it), but it’s still a favor you’re asking, and it does take time. (If you cannot listen to anything non-Machiavellian, then at least remember that people who are happy write more positive letters than those who are grouchy.) If you’re applying to a large number of schools, particularly if there are lots of annoying forms they have to do along with their letter, be extra-nice about it. For those who like scripts, I like to use phrases like, “Would you be willing to…?” “I really appreciate your offering to…”
Unless you are in one of those awful situations where the school dictates exactly who has to write the letters, choose intelligently. Recent is good. Long period of contact with you is good. Contact with you in some in-depth collaborative endeavor is excellent. Someone who can make it clear that you didn’t just do whatever it was that you were doing because you thought it would look good on your resume, someone who can talk about how they observed you persistently pursuing your passions, is terrific. Long experience in the field is nice (some forms ask), but not a crucial thing. If you happen to have a recommender who is a big name in the field, such that the recipient will know who it is and that getting that person to make a recommendation at all is meaningful, then that’s nice. But a big-name highly-experienced recommender who had very little contact with you and can’t say much in detail about you is not as useful as a run-of-the-mill recommender who knows you well and who can speak in detail about you.
Ask not just if they are willing to write a letter, but if they are willing to write a strong letter. A mealy-mouthed recommendation is a huge double-whammy, because it both says the kinda-sorta-okay things about you while everyone else is getting positive recommendations, and because it suggests that either you didn’t have any better choices, or that you didn’t realize that this recommender didn’t think as highly of you as you might have thought they did. If there’s a particular area of concern, something you know the recommender might want to say or have to say about you that is less than complimentary, bring it up directly, and talk with them about how (or whether) it could be presented in an honest but not awful way. If they cannot write you a good recommendation, it’s okay to part ways politely (I had a kid once who insisted that I write a recommendation, despite my clear statement that I would not be able to fail to mention her frequent, severe, and admittedly intentional disruptions of my class. Weird choice.). You are not asking the recommender to lie or in any way misrepresent their perspective — that would be unethical. But you need to know where you stand. Although this may be a one-time thing for you, it’s not a one-time thing for the recommender. The school gets to know recommenders over time, and recommenders who are unreliable, who tell them candidates are terrific when they aren’t, lose credibility. Plus, being aware of your weaknesses (in the shrink biz, we like to call them “growing edges” — doesn’t that make you feel all warm and fuzzy?) and being able to speak about them honestly, thoughtfully, and nondefensively is itself a good thing that a recommender might mention in a letter.
At the college level or before, most recommenders will not offer to share the letter with you. As you move further up the food chain, it becomes more typical for letters to be shared and even, in very good relationships, to be collaboratively edited. If someone does offer to share it, that’s very sweet, and can go a long way towards reducing the I-don’t-know-what’s-inside-that-secret-envelope anxiety. Say an extra thank you for that if they do it, but don’t ask them to if they don’t do it spontaneously. Similarly, I do come down on the side of checking the “I waive the right to see this letter” box — if they want you to see it, they will show you a copy anyhow. I know some folks probably disagree with me on this, but it just feels like a covert, “If I don’t get in, I might see if you wrote something less-than-perfect about me and I might Take Retributive Action of Some Kind.” Fundamentally, if you don’t feel you can trust the recommender, don’t ask them for a letter in the first place. This is one of those areas where it really pays to listen to the niggling feelings in your gut. (Been there, done that myself. No, I won’t put the details on the web.)
What’s much more typical at all levels is for recommenders to ask you what you’d like them to focus on in the letter, and/or for a copy of your resume or curriculum vitae, and/or for a description of what you’re applying for and what you think they’re looking for, what attracts you about it, why you think you’re a good match, etc. That doesn’t have to be well-written — a simple bullet list is just fine. As both a candidate and a writer of letters, I like this system a lot. It makes the writing process easier for the recommender, and it enables the candidate to make sure that the recommender doesn’t forget or misunderstand what the candidate thinks is important.
In fact, it’s a good idea to have already thought about all that before you start asking people. It’s nice to be able to put together a group of recommenders who can each speak well to a different aspect of your wonderfulness. If a recommender doesn’t ask for information, ask them “if there’s any information that would help you.” If they say no thank you, don’t worry about it. It very likely just means that they feel confident in terms of what they would want to say about you to that audience.
Yes, you might have numerous forms for them to fill out. If you’re applying to a ridiculously large number of places, (1) reconsider whether you really need to do that (2) warn the recommender ahead of time before they agree to write for you (3) say a huge thank-you both at the time and later on if they agree. Many recommenders will write a single letter on their own letterhead and attach it to the forms, doing only the minimal checkboxes or sometimes ignoring the form altogether. That’s generally no big deal. Admissions offices understand that recommenders are not the applicants, so they give them a fair bit more slack in terms of being perfect with the paperwork.
Logistically, make things as completely easy as you can for them. Fill out everything you’re supposed to fill out. Pre-address all of the envelopes to individual colleges for them. If the recommender is supposed to mail them to you, so that you can submit your recommendations in a single packet with your application, provide the recommender with a self-addressed large envelope to stick them all in and mail them back to you. Include plenty of postage — assume that the recommender will have both the form from the school and a separate letter on letterhead, so a large packet of envelopes might add up to more ounces than you expect. Frankly, I usually just spring for a priority-mail flat-rate envelope.
If the recommender is supposed to send them directly, then you’re fine with one stamp per envelope. Also, inside each pre-addressed-to-the-college pre-stamped envelope, include a self-addressed pre-stamped 4×6″ card with the name of the school and the recommender on it, and a nice note asking the admissions office to drop the card in the mail to you when they receive it. It’s an easy and cheap way to be sure that things got where they were going. (I use the same system with the applications themselves, or at least use a trackable / delivery confirmation method for mailing them. Things don’t get lost in the mail often, but it’s nice to know about it ASAP if they do!) If they’re supposed to use any online system to submit the recommendations, I think it’s nice to write clear directions for them and offer to help them if there are any technical glitches. Don’t assume that your recommenders are as comfortable with computers as you are, unless you have good reason to think so. The good news with the online systems is that you can generally track what’s been submitted and what hasn’t.
Give the recommender a lot of lead time — a month is good, two months if you can manage it. You’re making a major life decision here — procrastinating until the last minute isn’t a good move. Colleges are usually slightly flexible with recommendation deadlines (shh!), because they know it’s usually not your fault if the recommender is a day or two late, but remember that you don’t want a grumpy hassled person feeling pressured to write a letter for you at the last minute.
If you’re getting close to the deadline and they haven’t written them yet, it’s okay to nudge gently. My script is, “Hi, just checking in… just wanted to find out what your timeline was, in case you forgot…” And smile nicely and be really super-nice about it. Think about how nice you have to be when correcting a teacher… and then triple that. Yes, they’re letting you down. And you have to take it. Yes, it’s not fair. Resolve that when you’re the recommender, you won’t do that to kids. And don’t. even. think. about. getting. mad. where. they. can. see. If they appear likely to miss the deadline by any substantial amount of time, give them a graceful way out — “I know you’re really busy. Would you prefer that I ask someone else?” (Yes, I have a personal horror story here, too, which, again, I will not share with the intertubes.)
If you are a young-for-grade applicant, either because you skipped grades a while back, because you’re in some form dropping out of high school to go to college, because you’re homeschooling, or for whatever reason… all of this required professionalism goes double for you. If you’re getting letters of recommendation written for you, then you’re entering the phase of life where “really amazing for his age” needs to start being replaced by “really amazing, period.” If you’re not good enough on an objective scale to get in to whatever you’re trying to get into, then you don’t get extra credit or a bye or anything for being young when you try. Same with the letters — there’s going to be a presumption on the part of the reader that you’re “normal” for your age and hence immature as compared to other applicants. If the recommender can’t say honestly that you’re on a par (or better) maturity-wise with the other kids they write letters for, then you run a risk of being portrayed as “mature for her age,” which is the same thing as “not as mature as the older kids.”
Overall, your goal is to help your recommenders feel terrific about the whole experience. Let them see that you can handle the whole situation in a professional, responsible, adult fashion. And send a warm and personal thank you note afterwards. Chocolates and flowers aren’t necessary, unless you had them write an inordinate number of the darned things. It’s very anxiety-provoking, but if you choose well, realizing what others are willing (or even eager) to say about you can be tremendously validating.