The season of writing recommendation letters is coming to an end, and the season of reading them will soon begin. For those being evaluated—particularly for a fellowship, academic position, or admission to a graduate program—the whole process of how these decisions are made can be murky. And perhaps there is nothing as puzzling about it as the role that letters of recommendation play.
The content of the letters is itself a bit of a mystery, mitigating the need for applicants to waive all rights to know what is in them. (And this is really necessary if the letter is to be taken seriously at all.) While, earlier in my career, I asked for many of these letters—and still do, but often—I often find myself writing and read it. Academics don’t use a single approach to the way they read letters, but perhaps by explicitly showing how I read them, I can help dispel some of the apprehension and anxiety inherent in this process about applicants.
When I read letters of recommendation, I look for three things: 1) confirmation, 2) context and 3) insight. Let me release each one.
When I have to evaluate any fellowship, employment, promotion, or graduate admission application, I begin with the applicant’s statement or cover letter and then proceed, if available, to that person’s other written material, usually a writing sample or proposal. These are the primary documents I am making an impression on. I then turn to the rest of the information – perhaps a transcript, test scores, previous education and letters – to see if I can confirm this impression. In the best apps, everything is arranged; All materials present a coherent picture. When they don’t, I need to reevaluate my initial reaction and think carefully about which evidence we should value most and which are least valuable. Almost always, when it comes to the discrepancy between items written by the applicant and letters of recommendation, the letters are missing.
The basic scenario where letters become more important is when they can provide greater context for the applicant’s work. Applicants (and actually not just applicants – I often find myself in such a situation) sometimes are too close to their material to put it in a context that someone who is not fully in their immediate field would understand. I often find myself questioning the relevance of a proposal in an area of which I have limited familiarity and looking forward to letters to save land. While I don’t really fault the applicant—especially a beginner—for being unable to explain the importance of what they are doing, I rely on letters of recommendation to provide that information.
Finally, my ideal candidate for just about anything – and this may speak for my idiosyncrasies – is confident but has some humility. It is always a pleasure to learn something small but new from a letter, an achievement that the applicant may have forgotten to mention. I am very cautious about discussions of personality traits because they are very susceptible to unconscious biases, but fun and positive facts are always welcome.
Note what I don’t take seriously: the value judgments and the position of the letter writer. Letter writers often have a direct interest in a student’s success. I know I get a little proud when someone I recommend gets a noticeable acceptance. But I find the praise routinely found in letters of recommendation – egregiously in promotion letters – often unhelpful and unhelpful. “Best student of my career” or “leading scholarship” are meaningless terms unless backed by evidence, as is often the case.
If a writer says the applicant was the “best student” he or she has ever had, for example, I want to know what that means and how often that writer has used the term for other students. The Pathbreaking Scholarship requires a serious explanation of the specific intervention the work has done, how it is “pioneering” and the specific ways the writer believes it will be influential. It also requires a frank assessment of whether or not the writer, when it comes to making predictions, has previously shown his ability to be more accurate.
When I look at who wrote the letter of recommendation, I often think of other letters I’ve read by this writer for comparison. (The areas I work in are small enough that this happens more often than one might think.) Is the writer always a critic, or is each scholar “the best in her group”? I have neither the time nor the inclination to actually search for those past letters, but I have distinct impressions as to which of the letter writers are honest and which are not. In the end, a letter from a giant in the field at a more selective college or university is, in and of itself, worth nothing more than a letter from a junior scholar at a less selective university.
How I read letters It also helped me how to write them. I don’t think I’ve ever written a letter to someone with superhuman intellectual powers or no room for professional improvement, and I never attempt to write a letter suggesting otherwise. I also try to keep my posts brief, because I know how much work these assessments take. I try to be helpful to conscientious colleagues to make and incur very difficult decisions. I hope my colleagues will receive the same attention.
I wish I could say if most scholars share my style of reading these letters. From my limited personal experience, I know that at least some not, and perhaps most scholars, afraid to jeopardize the prospects of the candidate they recommend, are more empty than I am when they write such letters. However, the fact that I don’t know how my colleagues read these messages is part of the problem: we rarely have an honest and open discussion about how we are evaluated. One of my goals in this article is to foster that conversation.
This may be a cool relief for applicants. The application process in academia is as messy and subjective as it is in nearly every other field. When I say that letters of recommendation on their own and supporting the “big defender” are unlikely to get you a fellowship, position, or promotion—whereas other letters are not likely to blew up such opportunities—I know I’m not just talking about myself. I also know that most selection committees are made up of smart, hard-working people who are torn apart by really tough decisions. I would like to think that most of us would rather invest your energy and time in your own business than in raising a letter writer, and that you have some confidence in the evaluation process.