Fri, 27 November 2015
Dr. Al-Malood shares his techniques on screening and managing requests for student letters of recommendations, as well as what to include in your letters.
For a copy of the transcript that accompanies this episode, please visit: http://facultyworkshop.com/student-letters-of-recommendation/
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As we approach the end of a semester or academic year, we are sometimes flooded with requests from students to write them letters of recommendation. I'm usually honored to be asked to write these letters, and I usually look forward to working on them but only if they are warranted and meet the criteria that I establish for the students requesting the letter.
As faculty, our duties and responsibilities extend way beyond the classroom, and while we are typically compensated for working 40 hours a week, many of us actually invest 60-80 hours or more engaging in campus related work. Due to our limited time, we need to be selective about who we write recommendations letters for and when.
To manage these requests, I've developed a system to screen the requests and the people applying for them. The system is quite simple and includes two things:
Defining The Need:
Let’s begin by discussing how I define the need for a letter of recommendation.
Some students will contact me and ask for a letter of recommendation without really knowing why they want it. They believe that it may be helpful to them, but they don't necessarily have a specific use for it. So, before entertaining the idea of writing a letter, I'll ask my students why they want the letter. The four most the common responses I receive are split between legitimate and non-legitimate needs.
The legitimate needs include these two responses:
1. “I need it for a scholarship application.”
2. “It is required for my transfer application.”
The non-legitimate needs include these responses:
1. “I don't know. I think it will help my transfer application.”
2. “I think it might help me get a job.”
I automatically reject the latter responses since there isn't a credible reason to warrant the letter. If a student has already been accepted into a transfer school, they don't need a letter of recommendation. And secondly, employers typically do not require a letter of recommendation unless the position is within an academic setting. Since my students are entering the hospitality industry, a letter of recommendation is practically meaningless for employment purposes.
Once the need for a letter has been defined or in other words once I have established that the student requesting the letter has a legitimate need for it, I then proceed to the second step in my system, which is to ensure the student requesting the letter meets my criteria.
If a student needs the letter of recommendation for a scholarship or transfer application, I'll consider writing the letter, if the student is able to meet the following criteria:
In addition to the seven criteria I have just listed, I will also assess my professional experience with the student requesting the letter. Just because a student meets the above criteria, it does not mean that I will automatically write a letter for him or her.
When I write a letter, I do my best to craft a strong and confident letter that achieves the objective for which it was designed. If the student needs the letter to get into a particular school or earn a scholarship, I want to make sure that I do everything I can to help him or her. I'm proud to say that to date each letter I have written has accomplished that objective.
There are times when a student will meet the criteria I've established, but it may be necessary for me to decline their request on other legitimate grounds. For instance, a student who has exhibited conduct that would compromise my confidence in them, such as: being unreliable, failing to meet certain obligations, alcoholism or drug addiction.
If I have any reservations about a student, I will politely decline the request and recommend that the student ask another faculty. The reason that I decline is because when I write a letter, I'm placing my professional reputation on the line to recommend someone, and I will never do so if I have no confidence in that person.
Here's an example, I once had a student that met the criteria that I’ve established. The student was extremely intelligent, had a terrific personality, and was highly engaged in class and on campus. However, this particular student was also highly unreliable, had an atrocious attendance and punctuality record, as well as an addiction to marijuana and alcohol. There was no way I was ever going to write this student a letter. This student had a lot of potential, but I'd worked with her long enough to know that she was unwilling to acknowledge that she had a problem and, therefore, did not see the need to change her behavior or seek professional help.
That’s an example for a situation where I would decline a request even though the students met my criteria. However, sometimes it may be necessary to decline requests for other reasons.
I was at a meeting on campus, and one of my colleagues sitting next to me had a look of frustration, and shared with me that a couple of students contacted her and requested a letter of recommendation and expected the letter within a couple of days. My colleague felt pressured and frustrated because she was already busy and did not have anytime in her schedule to write the letters; however, she felt obligated to do so. There was a feeling that the students’ entire future depended on these letters and failure to provide the letters meant that she, as their professor, was ruining their lives.
Some faculty view students as kids which is unfortunate because it sometimes creates an environment where some faculty take on a parental role and feel the need to shelter these so-called “kids” and protect them from some of their poor planning habits, rather than using it as a learning opportunity.
The students themselves are ultimately responsible for their own lives and destiny, not the faculty writing them the letter of recommendation. Students need to do a better job planning these requests and then need to bear the consequences of not doing so. As the saying goes,
“Failure to plan on your part, does not constitute an emergency on my part.”
I'm not going to drop everything on a dime because a student did not have the foresight to request the letter within a reasonable amount of time.
So, when I get last minute requests, I typically decline them, especially since my criteria requires a two week advance notice. I love helping students, but I need to manage my limited time effectively and accepting these last minute requests often tend to sabotage my efficiency. Moreover, doing these last minutes requests seem to generate more of them. Students have a tendency to talk with one another and share experiences. If you agree to write a last minute letter of recommendation, before you can even blink, you'll start receiving requests from your other students who heard that you were kind enough to whip up a quick letter for Sally, and could you please write one for them as well.
Now if you decide to write your students a letter of recommendation, write it from the heart. If you're going to take the time to write a letter of recommendation, do your best to ensure that it achieves the purpose for which it will be used. Avoid writing weak letters that are not heartfelt, lack details, or fail to instill confidence in a student’s ability or potential. Weak letters of recommendation may actually hurt a student's application.
Base the letter on your experiences with your students, and be sure to incorporate what they may have listed on their personal statement or resume. Be careful not to write anything in the letter that would violate any privacy laws.
There are tens of thousands of examples of letters or recommendations for students on the internet, so if you’d like to see some examples, just Google it!
I searched for the keywords, “sample letter of recommendation for students” on Google and the search result yielded over 57,000 samples. Modifying the search terms will yield even more samples. So rather than providing an example, I’ll simply share the things that I typically include in my letters of recommendation.
I tend to include the following five things about a student in the letter of recommendation:
I usually conclude my letters with an affirmation of my confidence in the student and allude to the mutual benefit to the student and the institution receiving the letter. And that’s an outline of what I include in my letters.
So to recap, here are the four things that you should do before you consider a student's request to write a letter of recommendation: