11 April 2009

What you don’t want to know about recommendation letters

Multi-Man from The ImpossiblesI was reviewing applications for a program today (not the REU, something completely unrelated), and was reading through an application folder, fairly far down in the stack. I got to the recommendation letter. It was very positive, but...

I’d seen it before.

I went back, and sure enough, found that two applicants had asked the same person for recommendation letters, and the referee had used the same damn form letter for both.

As a reviewer, it’s totally maddening. It reflect poorly on the referee, but you really can’t do anything about it. Worse, the poor applicants typically are going to have no idea that they’ve been stuck with a form letter.

Then there are reviewers who write two line recommendations, letters that say, “This student was in my class. This student got this grade in my class. I recommend them.”

Recommendation letters are tricky things for students applying to programs. They are out of your control. You rarely have any way of knowing who writes good letters and who takes the lazy route and writes form letters.

Roulette tableBut is it a pure roulette table, where “you pays your money and you takes your chances”? Not entirely. There are ways you can maximize your chance of getting a strong recommendation letter.

Put yourself in the letter writer’s position. If you’ve taken a class from a professor, how much you enjoyed that class or how well you did does not determine how good a letter that person can write for you if the professor doesn’t know you. Did you ever ask questions in class? Show up for office hours? Engage in conversation?

Don’t think about how much you know about them, think about how much they can know about you. After all, who could you write a better letter for? Your best friend who you’ve known for years or a casual acquaintance you’ve seen at a few social events?

In other words, make it a point to get to know a couple of professors. To the point that when you walk into their office, they will say, “Hi [Insert your name here],” instead of, “What section of the class are you in?”

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