Writing Letters of Recommendation

10 Sep 2020 12:00 AM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

Dear ECPs,

It’s only September and I’m already getting requests for letters of recommendation! Do you have any tips for how to do this effectively and efficiently while balancing my other professional responsibilities?


Mastering LORs

Dear Mastering LORs,

Despite the fact that letters of recommendation for graduate school, grants, and awards are a major part of the jobs of many teachers, this is one of the many skills that we often don’t receive formal training in. We’re so glad you asked, because we have a few tips to offer to make this process both simpler and more effective, for you and your students.

Tip 1: Find some exemplars

Often, by the time we are asked to write our first letters of recommendation, we have not actually seen one. This makes sense, of course, considering that most letters that were written for us were confidential. Just like any style of writing, letters of recommendation have norms and conventions. Seek out some examples. Specifically, ask a colleague if you can see some letters they have written, especially if they were for similar purposes (i.e., what does a letter for a PhD program in psychology look like? An MA? Med school?). Drew Appleby and Karen Appleby, psychologists who have researched and written on the graduate school application process for years, offers specific examples for various skills in these two articles: Letters of Recommendation for Graduate School, Six Paragons and Letters of Recommendation for Graduate School, The Final Six Paragons. And of course you can search the Internet, though in our experience, letters from similar others for similar purposes are more helpful.

Tip 2: Provide information to your students about the process, ahead of time if possible

The more you can organize and filter the requests from students up front, the better. A lot of students don’t know norms and rules around requesting letters or what information to provide, so help them out! Consider including this information on your personal webpage or making a resource that can be shared with course sites. If you’re not sure what to advise, you’re in luck! We have some thoughtful and generous colleagues who have shared experience and research-based advice framed for students online.

“A Quick Guide for Requesting Letters of Recommendation” from Dana Dunn

“How to Request a Strong Letter of Recommendation”  from Drew Appleby and Karen Appleby (Molly’s personal favorite)

“Kisses of Death in the Graduate School Application Process” from Drew Appleby and Karen Appleby

In addition, if you have specific guidelines for what qualifies students for a letter from you (e.g., 1 year of being a research or teaching assistant; at least 3 courses; working together in at least 2 contexts, like RA and student), provide this information up front.

Tip 3: Collect additional information from the student to help you write a strong letter

In addition to information about the schools/programs/deadlines, consider what else would help you write the strongest letter you can. I always have students fill out the Strong Letter of Rec Form from Appleby and this has transformed my letter writing. You might also request a transcript, a writing sample, a draft of the personal statement, a resume or CV, a statement of goals, etc. Bonus tip: Collect all of this information in an online form like Google Forms or Microsoft Forms to make it easier to find later!

Tip 4: Be thoughtful and selective with the language that you use

It may not surprise you to learn that subtle biases may shape the way you discuss your students’ qualifications based on race or gender, and this may unintentionally impact the way these students are viewed. Luckily, there are resources out there to help you select your words carefully!

“Avoid gender bias in reference writing” from the University of Arizona Commission on the Status of Women

“Avoid racial bias in letter of reference writing” from Asmeret Asefaw Berhe and Sora Kim, UC Merced

Tip 5: It’s okay to say “No”

Finally, you are totally allowed to be selective or strategic with the number or types of letters you write. You may find yourself overwhelmed with the sheer number of requests you receive, and need to kindly turn down requests - protect your time! You may also receive requests for letters you do not feel comfortable writing, either because you cannot write a strong letter based on student qualifications or you do not know the student well enough to write a letter. Either way, be honest, kind, and firm with explaining your reasons to students. In my experience, students don’t realize that a letter from someone who does not know them well may actually hurt rather than help their applications. They simply ask the person they are most comfortable with. After I explain this, they thank me for providing this insight and usually have other mentors to ask instead. You, of course, need to be mindful of department norms to make sure you are contributing to the overall load (i.e., how many letters do most people write? what decision rules do others use for saying yes/no?), but please don’t feel like you have to say yes to every single request, especially if your letter will not prove helpful anyway.

We hope these tips help you feel more confident going into recommendation letter season, and if you have any more questions, please come see us on Twitter or Facebook and we’d be glad to help.

Your STP Early Career Psychologists Committee

Karenna Malavanti, Ph.D.

Albee Mendoza, Ph.D.

Molly Metz, Ph.D.

Janet Peters, Ph.D.

Daniel Storage, Ph.D.

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