Writing Recommendation Letters Online



The essence of knowledge is, having it, to apply it,
not having it, to confess your ignorance.


Perhaps the best way to describe the value of minding practical details is to consider what happens when we do not. My favorite page of my Family Handyman magazine is the “Great Goofs” back page, where do-it-yourselfers bemoan how they accidentally built a beautiful brick patio overtop their septic holding tank cleanout, or miswired a metal bathroom fixture, which energized the bathroom’s foil wallpaper and shocked anyone who touched the walls. I have my own “Great Goofs” submission if I ever decide to own up to it: I once installed a tile ceiling in my basement, and as I proudly prepared to staple in one of the last tiles I noticed that the furring strip wasn’t tight up against the ceiling beam, so I forcefully drove in an extra long nail for good measure—smack into the house’s main water supply pipe that ran through the beam, promptly flooding my new ceiling.

After reviewing over 400 letters for this handbook and discussing the subject with faculty, I’ve come across a number of “great goofs” suitable for publication: The professor/scientist who wrote a five-page reference letter for his student, using 70 percent of the letter to describe his own research. The grad student who addressed her student’s letter of reference envelope and popped it in the mail, then found the letter back in her mail slot three days later—she had mailed it back to herself. The instructor who had to submit his letter electronically and resorted to a lot of cut and pasting to save time, pasting in his Social Security number where the date should have been. As these examples show, our ability to mind the details when writing a reference letter becomes critical to our student’s success (and our own pride and professionalism).

So attend to the practical matters discussed in this chapter. It pays off, and keeps you out of the “great goofs” club, which already has enough members.