More from the mailbag: how can I write a good letter of recommendation?

elvgrenmailFree advice?  You’re soaking in it!  I put out a call on Twitter yesterday, and it’s like the loaves and the fishes, man:  For one tweet, I get five, seven, and seven times seven in response!  (Keep them coming–I’m all ears).

A correspondent wrote yesterday to suggest that we–dear readers, you & me both–offer some advice and ideas as to how to write a good letter of recommendation to get someone else a job.  Said correspondent is an American teaching at a British university now, and also offers some insight as to how American and British referees traditionally approach their task:

Dear Historiann,

Can you write a blog post offering advice for letter-writers? Obviously there’s some out there already, but it would be really useful to have more history-specific thoughts. I think your posts on the job market will be helpful for those going on it–this angle would hopefully add to that conversation.

As an American teaching in the U.K., I’ve noticed that British letter-writers tend to write more honest letters that trace the arc of a candidate’s intellectual development. These can come across as much more critical/not positive even though that’s not how they’re meant. If applying to U.S. universities, a candidate may wish to have a senior scholar or colleague look over that letter writer’s letter (if at all possible) to make sure it won’t sink the candidate.

–Call me Natasha (when I Look Like Elsie)

Dear Natasha/Elsie,

Thanks for writing, Natasha.  You’ve offered some really useful advice to search committees in the U.S. for understanding British letters of recommendation.  This is something I wasn’t aware of and I’m glad to know.

Speaking from my position as a American who has always worked in U.S. American universities, the most helpful letters of recommendation are written like the best letters from tenure and promotion referees.  That is, they’re experts in a subfield writing to peers who are experts in other history subfields, and so understand their charge to contextualize and explain the candidate’s research to an intelligent audience of non-specialists.  Did the junior scholar in question travel thousands of miles and spend months or years in remote, difficult to access archives in order to do her research?  Does she have a perspective on her sources that is totally original and possibly pathbreaking?  Does her work address major questions in her subfield in a creative and ambitious fashion?  A good letter of recommendation will point these out and elaborate on just what are her unique contributions to her field.

(Another related point:  I’m sure you, the referee, are a big shot in your field, but not everyone will recognize your name and tremble that you have deigned to address words to us on the search committee.  Go ahead and give us 3-4 paragraphs about the candidate’s research; don’t count on your letterhead and signature as a good enough endorsement.  A man in my field once upon a time was legendary for writing letters for his students that were 1-2 paragraphs long, as though it were still 1962 and he was writing to old grad school buddies who would just accept his endorsement at face value.)

If a referee has seen the candidate teach and/or has other evidence for her teaching quality and effectiveness, write about it!  Most colleges and universities in the U.S. care about teaching, and some of us care a great deal.  Additionally, most referees aren’t going to speak to teaching ability, so if you have some insight into this skill, let us know.

Although a dissertation advisor or committee member has usually known a student or colleague they’re recommending for years, I would advise caution in communicating anything very personal about the candidate without her permission.  Focus on her performance in class as both a student and a teacher, her research and writing, and any other contributions she made to her graduate department.  Too often have I read letters that recommend women on the basis of their warm and friendly personalities and their hard work to make something of themselves, and men on the basis of their natural, innate genius.  (I hate both of these evaluations.)

Unless the referee and the candidate agree that the referee is the best person to address any questions about gaps in her CV or (for example) the attenuated time it took her to write her dissertation, don’t.  She may not want you to mention that she has a family, a sick parent, and/or a health problem that required treatment.  Let the candidate self-disclose if she chooses to.

cowgirlgun&holster

Less narcissism, please!

Finally, please remember that the letter of recommendation is about the candidate, not about you.  Speaking for myself, I don’t give a $hit if you’re writing in haste because you’re off to take a fellowship in Scotland, if you’re on your way to the National Humanities Center, or if you’re a National Book Awards nominee.  (I have seen versions of this more than once as a search committee member or Chair.)  Don’t get me wrong:  I’m impressed, but more by your narcissism in putting this in someone else’s letter of recommendation than by your honors and achievements.  I could set that aside and still evaluate your student or colleague fairly, but I wouldn’t bet on everyone being as mature and sensible as I am.

(When you think about it, who is?)

So, to summarize:

  • Write from your unique vantage on the candidate’s career.
  • Keep it focused on the professional life, not the personal life or qualities.
  • Remember:  it’s not about you.  It’s about the job candidate.

Dear readers:  what else would you suggest?  What have I got wrong here?  What are some of the best and worst letters you have ever seen?  (Dish!  I mean, please share your insightful stories about what makes for more or less effective letters of recommendation.)

Also, don’t sit too close to your computer if you click on this video.  Man, that guy is super-sweaty!

25 thoughts on “More from the mailbag: how can I write a good letter of recommendation?

  1. In my experience, narcissism manifested in a recommendation letter def happens but MUCH more common is unfairness to women, which I assume is not fully conscious. (As a good feminist, I give people the benefit of the doubt.) In a recent British study bylined as coming from Cambridge University Press, researchers are finding undeniable sexism in the coverage of the Olympics, a setting that has ground in common with the academy. Both care about greatness, achievement, uniqueness, and hierarchy.

    These days when I write a letter extolling a woman, I ask myself, “Would this sentence sound like praise if said about a man? Or more like a snarky dig?” I’ve expunged many first-draft assertions of mine as a result. Also, consider including superlatives like “brilliant,” “path-breaking,” “paradigm shifting,” and so on if you’d ever use such terms to describe a man’s work (and if you’re not writing from the US to readers in the UK, of course; Brits might be turned off),

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    • Great advice, LadyProf. I’ve also used that mental gender switcheroo test on myself to ensure that I wasn’t writing differently for women & men. Also good advice on the dangers of superlative abuse–that tracks with Natasha/Elsie’s comments about British vs. American letters sounding overly critical.

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  2. I would love to see references written in the style of Economist obituaries, just for variety.

    Ages ago, as a graduate assistant, I was some search materials crossed my office for one reason or another; I think perhaps lots of letters were sent to a slightly wrong address. The one I remember was a letter from a professor who said that he had observed many students from his institution were applying for our job, that their referees were doubtless explaining their virtues, and so he thought the committee might like to also hear about all of their flaws, which he proceeded to elaborate upon. I dutifully passed this on to my boss (also the search chair) who laughed, said “That sounds like X,” and said he would do something appropriate with the letter in question.

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  3. I think that the best letters of recommendation are situated from the perspective (not explicitly so, but sincerely so) of empathy with the letter recipients as a body, and with their challenge in not just being impressed by yet another sterling candidate (everybody knows that such letters pile up quickly) but of trying to understand the combination of superlatives offered, in terms of how they will come together and present as a holder of the job (or fellowship, or whatever) in question, should they be selected. That’s been my self-description of the task, anyway, since I first accidentally figured out how to do it. although I find now that I can’t really explicate what it means in practice. But the tone of the letter conveys a sincere desire to situate the qualities offered (brilliance, perseverance, ability to change direction, accept criticism, lead without being bossy, etc) in the context of what a junior faculty member actually does; what a fellow in a collaborative (or non-collaborative) project setting, typically does. Preferably with a digestible number of vivid concrete examples and no more than that. Knowing when to stop.

    The easiest such letters to write are obviously ones where you can credibly convey the sense that you would definitely hire (or accept, admit, promote) this person yourself, and that you’re almost sorry that you can’t do that, but the next best alternative is helping the selectors realize the incredible opportunity they now have. Without wobbling or seeming ridiculous–kind of like some of the Olympic performances we’re been seeing. If you really mean all that, it will probably communicate as being persuasive. If not, the commentators will probably say “Ohhhhhawww…. Ze didn’t stick the landing!!!)

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    • Agree. And the specific details, not just the superlatives, are the key. They’ll convey plenty of personality without getting into personal lives.

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  4. A little something from the other side of things. I had a former student who became persistent about his request that I recommend him for law school. He was a goof-off, and I told him so, indicating that I could not recommend him. He begged me to write the letter anyhow. So I did so, casting it as a kindergarten report card. Among the qualities I discussed were not coloring between the lines (wandering off on his own interests rather than addressing the question at hand), not playing well with others (a tendency to be argumentative and stir up trouble out of boredom), and running with scissors ( making snap judgments and failing to consider the consequences of his actions).
    Imagine my chagrin when a top-notch law school accepted him and conferred his JD with high honors, and he went on to become a partner in a well-known law firm.
    I’m not sure what that says about your basic question, except that sometimes, it really doesn’t matter what you say.

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    • HAhahaha. Or maybe what you considered his weaknesses as a student = strengths in their minds? (He’s a bold, risk-taker! He’s confident in his abilities! He sets his own agenda!)

      At least these are strengths in a man.

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  5. I teach at a middle-tier directional state university but have a PhD from Big Ivy. A few years ago I decide that for grad school recs, I should put (PhD, Big Ivy) after my name. I hate it hate it hate it, but it seems like it’s good for my students if their application readers know they have a professor from a fancy-schmantzy school. Better that the readers think I am narcissistic than my student get written off because he/she didn’t get an undergrad degree from a more prestigious school. But I’m not sure it makes much difference.

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    • I don’t think that’s narcissism; narcissism is when you assume your readers all know who you are already! Another way of doing this would be to slide it into the text of a letter: “Since earning my Ph.D. at FancyPants U. (Ph.D. 1998), I’ve found that many of my students at Directional U. are at least as talented as my FancyPants peers and students. However in my eighteen years here, I have met none are as talented as Candidate XYZ. . . ” This makes sense esp. if you’re recommending the student to study at FancyPants U.

      Do you really think it’s made a big difference? (I’ve never tried it.)

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      • That’s a good idea; maybe I’ll try it next time. I don’t have many students who apply to grad school, but the few who have did get in to pretty good programs.

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  6. Definitely agree about the difference between the British and the American style, and it’s a problem for those who work on the history and literature of Great Britain, whose recommenders/peers may be used to a different system. The Americans speak in relentless positives, and let the faint praise, or what’s not said, convey any negatives. Brits don’t.

    So in addition to the good advice above, I endorse Natasha’s suggestion that job candidates get their letters reviewed. It’s not hard: have Interfolio send them to a trusted friend or mentor.

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  7. I also try and include some professionally appropriate anecdote that makes them human. I want the search committee to see beyond their research and teaching skills, which I do talk about, but to them as a potential colleague. This isn’t always possible because I too am concerned about the sexism of letters, but I try. I also talk to the candidate about what personal information I should reveal. Sometimes explanations for prolonged dissertation writing are better coming from the faculty.

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    • Agreed. Only a dissertation advisor or other committee member can really know how much and how tortuous was the work going into the diss., and/or any personal issues that might have interrupted their work. That’s something I think is better addressed by faculty letters than in the application letter from the candidate, which puts one in a defensive position right off the bat, and candidates should write about their skills and training with confidence.

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  8. Can I put in a request for a sequel? This fall, I’ll be writing letters for a (truly excellent) MA student who is applying to some truly competitive PhD. programs. The competition has become very, very steep in the half-decade since I’ve done this last, and the stakes are ever-higher. I believe in this student, but I want to make sure ze isn’t sunk by *my* ignorance of how the kids are doing it these days…

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  9. This is very helpful, and an interesting discussion.

    I agree about the narcissism, but I also wonder (following up on some of the comments above) about the value of contextualizing the value of one’s recommendation by providing some personal (recommender) details. In graduate school (at an Ivy), I worked for a computer science faculty member (also from an Ivy, with an average of 5 multi-million dollar grants actively running during my years with her). She had me draft rec letters for her, and stressed that they always needed to include a paragraph about her work – not because she was narcissistic, but (as I recall her explaining) because “I’m writing to people who probably have no idea who I am”. So based on her model, I contextualize my letters with details about my own training, the courses I teach, the number of students I’ve had, etc. to help the reader understand the value (or lack of value, I suppose) in my recommendation.

    Does anyone else do something like this? Is there a better approach that I could adopt?

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    • I don’t talk about myself, but I do provide context to help frame the candidate’s work: “in [course title], which I designed as a research methods class…” (good if the candidate is in a different field and I want to make sure it’s clear I’m not just saying how awesome he is at Renaissancy stuff); “for the first assignment, which asked students to. . .” (again, gets at specific skills, not just how generically smart the candidate is); “although my expertise is in X, I designed an independent study with [student] that would help contextualize his interest in Y through Z critical lens…”

      For tenure/job letters, I’ve also said things like “I regularly assign his essay to my M.A. students in a class focused on [whatever] with [whatever] results,” or “as someone who reads submissions for [journal the applicant has published in], I can speak to…”

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  10. Here’s a request for another sequel, for those of us writing external evaluations on tenure cases. I’m working on my first one this summer, and I want to make sure I do it right–but I’ve only participated in a couple of tenure cases other than my own, and never as an external evaluator.

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    • Great idea!

      I’ve only done one of these myself so far, but I’ve read a lot of them. I’m sure we can get some senior scholars to say more than I can say.

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  11. This is really helpful. . . the British / US divide is real, and always affects those of us who may get letters from the UK. Another DO NOT: if you’re writing for multiple people for the same job, do not say that the person who is obviously the second tier candidate from your program is perfect for X College. Your colleagues at X College will be able to tell that you really think candidate A is a star, and candidate C is OK. And they will be insulted that you think their colleague should be OK, and not a star.
    (This happened many years ago. We offered the job to candidate A, who took another job, and is indeed a star. We didn’t look twice at candidate C.)

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  12. Historiann is so right, recommendations are no place for narcissism (any more than talks at memorial services, which also tend that way nonetheless in my experience). For tenure letters, it’s really important to contextualize: in addition to describing the candidate’s research and writing, make clear where the candidate fits in the larger field. Comparisons can be very helpful, but it’s good to keep them largely positive: She has accomplished as much as the excellent X, recently tenured at Big Ivy, and a little more than the very impressive Y, recently tenured at State U; NOT she’s way better than X, recently tenured at Big Ivy, and kicks the butt of Y. You never know whose ox you may be goring with a remark like that. Historiann’s right, too, about keeping it professional. A story about collegiality or service to a professional organization can inform the locals about their colleague’s relation to a wider world in a useful way: that’s about as personal as I ever get. All simple stuff. One simple question: how do you name people you write for? Last name plus title; last name; first name?

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    • I always struggle with that, especially if I’ve known them for years!

      I tend to go with the more formal, mostly because I’m usually writing for women (who may be referred to by first names more often than men) and I think it never hurts to err on the side of formality. I also tend to use their titles throughout the letter to, out of an abundance of caution and formality.

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      • Thanks for your reply. I see exactly where you’re coming from, Historiann. Until recently, I was very formal: Professor for those with such appointments, Dr for post-doc and VAP holders, Mr and Ms.: for years that seemed reliably professional and gender egalitarian. Over time, though, I began to find those forms really stodgy: fewer and fewer of the recommendations I read on committees used them. In the last few years, accordngly, I’ve gone over completely to the informal side: I give a first introduction with full name, followed by first name for the rest, used consistently whether the candidate is male or female. I am never sure if this is right, or better, and I take your point about female candidates. But the less formal letters seem to be just a little more effective. Will keep thinking about what’s right.

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      • Ha! You’re right, it’s stogdy; but if we can’t be stodgy, who can?

        I will have an opportunity to see what’s happening now w/r/t letters of recommendation this year, as I’m chairing a search in my department and serving as a committee member for a search in another department, too.

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