Frequently, especially when students apply for grad school or scholarships, the applications are complex enough that your must understand your role as a reference in a broader context. Otherwise, your letter won’t be as effective, in that it may become redundant or not fit in neatly with other application materials. Even if students simply ask you for a letter of reference and don’t mention the broader circumstances, it is useful to discuss the application process with them or even look over the application materials yourself, if only to confirm details and full context.
Finding Out Who Else is Writing Recommendation Letters
Knowing who else is writing letters for students and how many other recommenders there are—perhaps even suggesting specific individuals—can give you a sense of the necessary depth and scope of your comments. Students are not always aware that they should choose letter writers who, when considered collectively, provide a balanced, comprehensive picture—they sometimes just automatically try any professor from whom they received a high grade.
Once you know who the other letter writers are, consider how your letter can provide a slant that the others will not. In some cases, faculty even privately confer with other recommenders to discuss the kinds of details they plan to use—thus they can be sure to provide a balanced picture in relation to the other letters. There are times where your letter might provide very limited comments based on your limited relationship with the student, and there are times when you will want to be expansive in one area of the student’s background (say, the student’s performance in a research lab) while unconcerned in another area (say, the student’s character). In such cases, knowing who else is writing letters can also help you point letter readers towards the comments of others for fuller context.
Making Certain Access Rights Have Been Waived
Chapter 1 of this handbook discusses the issues of letter confidentiality and access rights in detail. It is always prudent to be certain that students have checked all boxes in their application confirming they have waived their access rights. I know of cases where students did not check anything in that category when showing the referees the application, assuring them they would “take care of that later.” I’ve even known of a few cases where the student seemed genuinely puzzled as to what the statement meant because of the wording (I’m afraid that some students misunderstand the meaning of “waive”). This issue is always worth clarifying with the student to avoid misunderstanding or any uncertainty on your part about the confidentiality of your comments. Of course, some letter writers aren’t much concerned with the issue, but selection committees do favor letters with confidential comments, assuming that they are more candid.
Filling Out Checklists
Frequently you will be asked to fill out checklists to assess the student, either instead of or in addition to sending a letter. The main issue when filling out checklists should be consistency and continuity in the context of your letter. If you simply check the highest assessment for every attribute (a potentially suspect practice anyway), and the corresponding letter doesn’t back up this assessment, your credibility as an evaluator suffers and the student is harmed. When filling out checklists, consider each attribute individually, and never hesitate to resort to the “no opportunity to observe” category if appropriate. If attaching a separate letter with the checklist, type or handwrite that information in the correct slot of the form, and look over the application for any instructions about how your letter should be attached. If handwriting, use black ink so that a Xeroxed copy is readable.
Delivering the Letter
Although it is ultimately the student’s responsibility to be certain the letter is delivered to the correct party according to application protocol, savvy faculty members check on such details carefully. Often, application materials instruct you to deliver the letter in a sealed envelope directly to a committee, signed across the seal, or you may be asked to give the letter to the student to be sent with a package of materials. Students are often invited right in the application to prepare the envelope for you or to use an envelope that comes with the application. In all cases, a standard practice is for you to deliver the letter in a sealed envelope, signed over the seal to ensure confidentiality. If the letter is sent through the student as part of a package and a mailing address is not needed, the envelope itself should contain a descriptive phrase, such as “Reference Letter for Janet Lerner,” followed by your name.
Attending to the Deadline
Always ask students for a firm completion deadline for your letter, and recognize that it might have to be done earlier than the full application is due if the student is sending in the application package by hand. Some faculty invite the student to prompt them with a reminder a few days before the letter is due. Just as we expect students to meet deadlines for us, we should give them the same courtesy.
For more on some of the practical details to mind when writing recommendation letters, turn to these websites: