As writers, we don’t always have ready words for every circumstance. When writing letters, special circumstances frequently arise and we may desire to make commentary beyond the usual. Just a few of the common special circumstances, with brief examples of how some writers handled them, are discussed below.
Defining Terms That May be Misunderstood
Since your recommendation letter is almost always read outside of your school, there are cases where you should define briefly any terms specific to your school, the name and role of a group, or even terms that might be unfamiliar to your audience. At my undergraduate program—Juniata College in PA—the term “program of emphasis” rather than “major” is still used, and explaining the distinction, noting that the program of emphasis allows students to design a major course of study to suit their needs, might be necessary in a letter endorsing the student’s course choices. At Harvard, the term “tutor” could mean a small seminar instructor, a thesis supervisor, or an academic dormitory supervisor (3).
Also, be sure to write out the names for a relevant course you teach that might otherwise sound like an alphabet soup. “OPMGT 418W” might mean little to an outside reader, but a description of the course as a capstone writing-intensive class in operations management educates letter readers about the course’s contribution to the student’s credentials.
Recommending While Discussing Shortcomings in Grades
Especially if you’d like to discuss a student’s inconsistent academic record—which is sometimes better done by the faculty member than by the student—straightforwardness and a movement towards positive endorsement can be very effective. Such commentary usually only comes after a frank discussion with the student, of course, in which you specifically ask permission to discuss the student’s grades so that you may give context to them. One such commentary in a recommendation letter follows:
In his high school, John did not have the sufficient background needed to prepare him for the rigors of college. His transition to Mythic University was not an easy one. In fact, in his first math course and chemistry lab, he received a D and a C, respectively. However, this did not send him fleeing to a major that he perceived would be easier; instead, his resolve was strengthened. He has since sought out tutorial resources to assist him and is now showing steady improvement in his grades, having just earned his first B+ in a college chemistry course and a 2.9 GPA for the most recent semester. Although John does not present the credentials of a scholar, his intent, passion, and motivation are genuine, and his progress is measurable.
Recommending the Under-Represented Student
For students under-represented in a field, the social and academic challenges can be both specific and subtle, a fact honored by scholarships sometimes earmarked for these students. The paragraph that follows—authored by the school’s Diversity Officer, which helps to lend it authority—is excerpted from a letter used to recommend a student for a minority scholarship in her field.
In the fields of science and engineering, students of color and thus professionals of color remain under-represented. This under-representation can result in a lack of faculty role models, peers of color in the classroom and laboratory, and often in an isolation that inhibits full participation in the university community. Despite these difficulties, however, some students strive and thrive as Janet Lerner has done. The commitment and scholarship of a student such as Janet must be celebrated.
Recommending by Citing Others
In the case that follows, the faculty member agreed to write a letter despite limited knowledge of the student, and revealed this in the opening paragraph.
I have only worked with John Lerner for one semester, in that he was originally brought into our program two years ago by my predecessor, who is currently the Director of Academic Advising in another program at Mythic University. When I contacted her for her evaluation of John, she was swift and overwhelmingly positive in her response, stating that “He is a diligent and memorable student committed to scholarship.” She went on to say that she felt great reward and satisfaction in John’s growing accomplishments.
Recommending While Acknowledging Limitations
As promoted strongly in Chapter 1 of this manual, faculty can effectively recommend students even while acknowledging areas where growth is needed. An example follows:
One way for me to comment on Janet’s maturity, motivation, and performance in my class is to discuss her final paper, a proposal arguing for the creation of a new school district in her local area. Using maps, basic spatial analysis, and newspaper articles local to her area, Janet wrote a mock proposal to a school board that was professional and truly worthy of the board's attention. Her paper went far beyond the scope of the assignment, and also reflected something I noted throughout the semester: her natural ability with language. Janet has a creative, confident, maturing voice as a writer. Although she did not receive an A in my course because her grades were not consistently high, her last two papers and some one-on-one meetings with her persuaded me that she can become an effective contributor to her chosen field of sociology.
Recommending the Student Who has Since Graduated
In the example below, when asked to write a recommendation letter for a student three years after he had graduated, the faculty member solicited the student’s input and was able to write an updated letter based on the documentation provided, rehearsing and connecting the student’s undergraduate record to his present path.
John has always been an academic standout. As I consider the types of academic projects in which John involved himself as an undergraduate—from his work in a sediment sampling lab to his active participation in a upper-level class in which he performed a field study of sea grass health—I am genuinely impressed by his drive, motivation, and the clarity of his vision for the future. The fact that John also won a prestigious Udall Scholarship (a national competition for students in the sciences) and received numerous other academic awards underscores his excellent undergraduate record. Since John has been in graduate school over the past three years, he has communicated with me once a year via e-mail, articulating clear professional goals in relation to his research on Southern New England salt marshes, discussing his presentation to the CT Coastal Audubon Society’s Open Space Inventory Steering Committee, and emphasizing his vision to work in estuary research and policy.
These websites offer detailed advice about how to handle special circumstances when writing letters of recommendation: