Over 35 years ago, a few months after I graduated from college, I was surprised to receive a packet in the mail one day containing copies of letters of recommendation my professors had written for me. Even though I had waived my right to see the letters, I had used a placement service that helped graduates apply for teaching jobs, and once I had my first teaching job I cancelled my use of the service. By what I assume was an administrative error, copies of all my job application materials, including my recommendation letters, were then sent to me. Once I realized that I was looking at my own confidential letters of recommendation, I had an ethical decision to make. Should I destroy the letters, return them, or read them?
Of course I read them, and what I learned about how others saw me was illuminating. I discovered that I was a fine teacher, of average intellect, a “determined fellow with a highly evolved work ethic,” and a “good sport” (that from my rugby coach). The letters were candid, warm, and personal—I’d chosen my recommenders well and attended a small school where faculty got involved with their students. And I’d gotten my first teaching job, presumably helped by these letters. Even though I’d come to read these letters seemingly by accident, the process seemed tidy and the system worked.
Since then, I’ve learned just how complex the process can be. I’ve realized that graduate students, not just professors, are asked to write letters, and that some faculty report writing more than a thousand letters during their careers. I’ve realized that students are often unsuccessful at communicating to their references the criteria by which they will be judged. I’ve talked to faculty who’ve been befuddled by the process of having to submit their letters online, or who are surprised that they’ve been asked to rewrite a letter for a student by a scholarships advisor—in fact, they’ve mused, they’ve never even heard of a scholarships advisor.
For me, the formal process of writing this handbook began through Penn State’s newly hired scholarships advisor a decade ago. She asked me to put together a guide that she could share with faculty, offering me access to over 300 letters written by faculty to help me generate material. As I reviewed these letters, I became more and more convinced that there are concrete standards for good letter writing that should be articulated, and that by showcasing some of the best letters I reviewed I could point the way to helping faculty help their students get jobs, earn admission to graduate schools, and win scholarships.
Meanwhile, as this handbook grew in popularity, I was invited to guest lecture on the subject at schools ranging from College of the Holy Cross to Pepperdine University, and in the process I gained access to more letters from faculty at various schools and discussed the subject openly. As a result, I have seen some really bad letters of recommendation. I've seen otherwise stylish letters narrating tediously long explanations or discussing the letter writer’s qualifications to the point that the person being recommended is virtually invisible. I recall a silly recommendation letter extolling the virtues of a candidate’s racquetball playing abilities at great length, a letter from a department head riddled with embarrassing typos and usage errors, and a whole batch of letters that were directed at the wrong scholarship because the candidate had misinformed his recommenders about the name of the scholarship. In a worst-case scenario, I saw a letter from a school’s Board of Trustees member that included the line “I imagine he would be a good candidate for a Rhodes and Marshall” (um, they're two different scholarships). In each of these cases, the letters themselves ended up undermining the individual being recommended, or at least distracting those reading the letters to the point of annoyance.
This handbook provides a look at how we might go about writing letters for students, particularly as they apply for some of the nation’s most prestigious scholarships. My intentions are to set forth the criteria that employers and committees use as they evaluate candidates, to offer sample letters for your study, and to help faculty help students in approaching them properly as they seek letters of reference. I share with you the goal of finding ways to use your time effectively as you guide students to develop and realize their ambitions.