Teaching Tips

A Developmental Strategy to Write Effective Letters of Recommendation

In The Complete Guide to Graduate School Admissions, Keith-Spiegel and Wiederman (2000, p. 175) state that letters of recommendation “are taken very seriously, and sometimes are as important as grades and test scores.” This statement highlights the essential function letters play in our students’ attempts to achieve their post-baccalaureate goals and to the crucial role faculty play in this process. Faculty who have written such letters know how rewarding this process can be, but they also are aware that it is a time-consuming, sometimes difficult, and occasionally frustrating task.

This column provides advice to faculty to help them to write effective letters that can portray their students’ capabilities in an honest and compelling manner, increase their students’ chances of being accepted into the graduate programs or jobs of their choice, and do not place their authors in litigious jeopardy.

Effective letters are the product of an active developmental partnership between students who request them and faculty who write them. The success of this partnership is determined by the degree to which the following steps have been accomplished:

  1. Faculty become aware of the knowledge, skills, and characteristics, or KSCs that potential employers and graduate school admissions committees value in their applicants.
  2. Students are made aware of these KSCs early in their education.
  3. Faculty provide students with opportunities to develop these KSCs.
  4. Faculty create a system for students to provide information about their KSCs that allows letters to be written in a timely, evidence-based, and procedurally correct manner.
  5. Faculty become aware of the ethical aspects of letters so they can write honest letters while avoiding legal peril.

Which KSCs Are Valued
Faculty are responsible for teaching more than the content of psychology. They also are responsible for teaching students how to use what they have learned to succeed after graduation. One way to do this is to make students aware of the KSCs valued by employers and graduate school admissions committees and to help them develop plans to attain these KSCs.

Letters and KSCs for Graduate School
Effective letters describe the attributes of their subjects that are valued by the people who read them. Research with two of my students (Appleby, Keenan, & Mauer, 1999) generated the following list of KSCs (in descending order of importance) based on the number of graduate programs that specifically requested letter authors to rate them: 1) motivated and hard-working, 2) high intellectual/scholarly ability, 3) research skills, 4) emotionally stable and mature, 5) writing skills, 6) speaking skills, 7) teaching skills/potential, 8) works well with others, 9) creative and original, 10) strong knowledge of area of study, 11) strong character or integrity, 12) special skills (e.g., computer or lab), 13) capable of analytical thought, 14) broad general knowledge, 15) intellectually independent, and 16) leadership ability.

Tell students they must provide you with specific examples of things they have done during their college careers that will allow you to say they possess these KSCs and enable you to support your statements with specific evidence. Provide students with a form that lists these KSCs and include space for them to describe their supporting behaviors under each one.

Letters and KSCs for Employment
Another study (Appleby, 2000) provided a similar list of KSCs (in descending order of importance) valued by employers who come to campus to interview psychology majors: 1) deals effectively with a wide variety of people, 2) displays appropriate interpersonal skills, 3) listens carefully and accurately, 4) shows initiative and persistence, 5) exhibits effective time management, 6) holds high ethical standards and expects the same of others, 7) handles conflict successfully, 8) speaks articulately and persuasively, 9) works productively as a member of a team, 10) plans and carries out projects successfully, 11) thinks logically and creatively, 12) remains open-minded during controversies, 13) i——–dentifies and actualizes personal potential, 14) writes clearly and precisely, 15) adapts easily to organizational rules and procedures, 16) comprehends and retains key points from written materials, and 17) gathers and organizes information from multiple sources. The advice I give my employment-bound students about these KSCs is the same that I give graduate-school-bound students. The forms I have students complete are available; e-mail requests to [email protected].

Communicate KSCs Early and Provide Students the Opportunity to Develop Them
Include KSCs and information about preparing for the steps necessary to obtain a job or gain entrance to graduate school in the academic advising process. If students are to develop the KSCs necessary to accomplish their post-baccalaureate goals, they must first become aware of them. Without this type of advanced preparation, students are likely to utter the oft-heard phrase, “Why didn’t someone tell me I had to _____?” during their senior year, when it is too late to do what they should have done to accomplish their goals.

Psychology departments can provide opportunities for students to develop these KSCs. For example, the vast majority of our students do not apply to graduate school, but they still need written or verbal support from faculty to secure jobs. Providing students with opportunities to function as teaching assistants, research assistants, peer advisors, or psychology club or Psi Chi officers enables them to acquire the KSCs valued by potential employers.

Consider an Academic Course
One departmental strategy to increase students’ awareness of these crucial activities (and their resulting KSCs) is to offer a course that systematically exposes students to them early in their undergraduate careers. My “Orientation to a Major in Psychology” syllabus and a sample of one of my student’s work also are available by request to [email protected].

The Process

Students Providing Information
Faculty need a system for students to request letters that allows them to be written in a timely, evidence-based, and procedurally-correct manner.

Ask students to provide extensive academic and personal information. I use a system based on Zimbardo’s (1987) that requires my students to organize the following information using a manila file folder on which they print their names and 1) a list of all graduate schools or employers to whom they wish me to write a letter with the deadline by which the letter must be received, 2) where the letter is to be sent, 3) whether there is a form to complete in addition to my letter, 4) the specific graduate program or job for which they are applying, 5) their e-mail address and phone number, 6) their resume or curriculum vitae, 7) their completed KSC form (which lists all the classes taken from me and the grades earned), 8) recommendation forms with the necessary sections completed, and 9) a stamped envelope with the typed address of each employer or graduate program to which it should be sent, or their own address if I should send the letter to them for inclusion with their application.

It is in the students’ best interests to sign the statement waiving their right to see their letter. Graduate schools are more likely to have confidence in the honesty and objectivity of letters whose subjects have not read them (Ceci & Peters, 1984; Keith-Spiegel & Wiederman, 2000).

Ask students to give you their completed folder at least one month before the earliest deadline so you have sufficient time to write a carefully crafted letter. This process enables me to keep all of my letters information organized, which is particularly important during peak letter-writing periods such as Christmas vacation. My students often comment that this system reduces some of the stress of the application procedure by helping them to create a sense of control.

Requesting the Letter
Once students become aware of the nature and importance of letters, and are familiar with the information they must provide, the next step is for them to “pop the question.” After a student asks for a recommendation, I set up a meeting to explain my letter-request method, during which I stress that “Will you write me a letter of recommendation?” is not the right question to ask.

The more appropriate question for students to ask is, “Can you write me a strong letter of recommendation?” Replacing the will with can and adding strong gives faculty the option to diplomatically decline the request, not because they do not want to write a letter, but because they believe their letter could be a potentially negative addition to the student’s application. This type of letter is a “kiss of death” (Appleby & Appleby, 2004). A graduate school admissions committee chairperson reports the following:

[A student] asked me to write a letter of recommendation for her. She informs me that she took my class last semester. I’ll have to take her word for it because I don’t remember her. If she was in my class, she did nothing to distinguish herself from the other students. Needless to say, I can’t comment on her qualifications.

It is crucial to help students understand that strong letters are those whose authors say they know the student well, are willing to make positive statements about the student’s KSCs, can support these statements with compelling evidence, and whose letters will be credible to readers.

Inform students that letters included in the application materials for graduate school candidates should not be written by travel agents, ministers, therapists, mothers, and the candidates themselves. Some students are remarkably naïve about the nature of letters and believe that graduate school admissions committees and potential employers are simply interested in reading letters that contain positive comments about the student, regardless of their source.

Faculty are not required to write a letter for a student just because it is requested. If a faculty member does not believe he or she can write a strong letter, it is in the best interest of the student for the faculty member to decline, to explain why the letter could have a negative impact on the student’s application, and to help the student find a more appropriate reference author. My most effective defense against having to write negative letters is my letter-request method. Once students discover the type of evidence I need to write a strong letter, those for whom I would have to write a potentially damaging letter either thank me for my honesty and withdraw their request or simply never return the letter-request forms.

Writing the Letter
Address the KSCs most valued by the letter reader early in the letter, thus increasing the positive impacts of a letter using the power of the primacy effect. I begin my letters with a paragraph introducing the subject of my letter, the program for which he/she is applying, and for how long and in what capacity I have known him or her. I end this paragraph by introducing each of the KSCs I will identify and support with evidence in the remaining paragraphs. For example, the following is taken from one of my recent letters.

I will use this letter to describe Cindy’s skills and characteristics in the following areas that are crucial to graduate school success: motivation and work ethic, intellectual ability, maturity and responsibility, research skills, and communication skills. I will also provide you with empirical evidence that she has acquired each of these skills.

“Make every attempt to state facts about a student … and then support them with criterion-referenced observations” (Swenson & Keith-Spiegel, 1991, para. 3). Heed Swenson and Keith-Spiegel’s legal advice to letter writers that any “unfavorable information must be supportable” (1991, para. 5). I am also careful to read the directions to letter writers, which often request answers to very specific questions (e.g., “Do you believe this candidate will be able to survive in a scientifically-rigorous doctoral program?”). Instructions sometimes request the letter writer to address a candidate’s weaknesses. I attempt to comply in a positive and developmental manner by describing a KSC the candidate previously lacked, but which he or she has now developed or is in the process of developing.

Letter Length and the Quality of Writing
Write letters of moderate length (i.e., no more than two pages) that exhibit verbal parsimony and felicity of expression. I assume that letter readers are suspicious of extremely short and extremely long letters. An extremely short letter is most likely interpreted as an indication that the writer does not know the letter’s subject well or does not have many complimentary things to say about the subject. Extremely long letters are tedious to read, and unless they are written in such a way as to hold the attention of the reader, they may be dismissed as overblown or exaggerated. Graduate admission committees are often faced with hundreds of letters.

Avoid spelling, grammar, punctuation, or capitalization errors. These errors can seriously erode a reader’s confidence in the writer’s content.

Letters Students Must Include in Their Application Package
When a letter must be included in the student’s application package, it is customary for writers to sign their name across the sealed flap of the envelope and then either mail it to the applicant or have them pick up the letter. I prefer to have students pick up their letters to avoid the possibility of loss or delay in the mail.

The Follow-Up Process
It is perfectly acceptable to have students remind you the week before their letters should be mailed. Faculty should be true to their word if they promise to write strong letters and to mail them so they arrive before their deadlines, but faculty and students are all too familiar with stories about strong candidates who were rejected by admissions committees because of missing letters. Timely reminders can save students from worrying more than necessary during the application process, and give a faculty member one more prompt just in case an extra busy workload has produced an inadvertent memory lapse.

Ethics and the Law
Faculty must be aware of the ethical aspects of letters of recommendation so they can write honest letters while avoiding legal peril. According to Swenson and Keith-Spiegel (1991, para. 2), “Libel occurs when false information that damages a person’s reputation is written and disseminated to a third party, with some fault on the part of the writer. … Truth is a defense to an allegation of defamation.” These authors present the following suggestions (with clarifying examples) to protect faculty from liability when they write letters:

  • State factual information and support it with evidence.
  • Support unfavorable information with empirical observations of behaviors.
  • Verify the truth of your statements.
  • Label opinions as opinions, and offer the basis upon which they were formed.
  • Write in a clear and unambiguous manner. Do not use obfuscation to conceal negative information.
  • Gain students’ consent before you write letters requested by third parties.
  • Send information about students only after third parties have officially requested it, and send that information only to those requesting it.
  • Understand that you are not required to write a letter about students just because a student asking you to do so.
  • Consult your university’s attorney if you believe a letter may endanger your legal well-being.

I would be remiss if I did not reiterate one crucial point. Although letters can be difficult, time-consuming, and frustrating, they also can provide a wonderful opportunity for faculty and students to interact in a manner that can enrich and facilitate their teaching and learning partnership. Helping students to understand the nature and importance of letters in a positive and developmental manner — and then providing them with opportunities to develop the KSCs you want to highlight in their letters — can be a mutually rewarding process.

References and Recommended Readings

  • Appleby, D. C. (2000, Spring). Job skills valued by employers who interview psychology majors. Eye on Psi Chi, 3, p. 17.
  • Appleby, D. C., & Appleby, K. M. (2004, June). How to help your students avoid the kisses of death in the graduate school application process. Paper presented at the meeting of the American Psychological Society, Chicago, IL.
  • Appleby, D. C., Keenan, J., & Mauer, E. (Spring, 1999). Applicant characteristics valued by graduate programs in psychology. Eye on Psi Chi, 1, p. 39.
  • Ceci, S. J. & Peters, D. (1984). Letters of reference: A naturalistic study of the effects of confidentiality. American Psychologist, 39, 29-31.
  • Keith-Spiegel, P. K., & Wiederman, M. W. (2000). The complete guide to graduate school admission (2nd ed.). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
  • Svinicki, M. D. (1999). Teaching and learning on the edge of the millennium: Building on what we have learned. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
  • Swenson, E. V., & Keith-Spiegel, P. (1991). Writing letters of recommendation for students: How to protect yourself from liability. Retrieved May 17, 2004 from www.lemoyne.edu/OTRP/otrpresources/otrp_lor.pdf
  • Zimbardo, P. G. (1987). Reducing the agony of writing Letters of recommendation. In M. E.Ware & R. J. Millard (Eds.), Handbook on student development: Advising, career development, and field placement (pp. 94-95). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

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