Writing a Recommendation Letter

November 17, 2010 1 comment

I have been asked to write a few recommendation letters lately and wanted to share some thoughts on the process that I have been trying to follow. Letters of recommendation are required for everything from fellowship applications, graduate school applications to even conference travel grants. Re-using the same letter for every venue is probably the worst thing one can do for their students. Tweaking the letter for different universities when applying for graduate school is probably fine, but using the same letter for a fellowship that is clearly written for a graduate school application just makes you look like you didnt even take the effort.

Letter of Recommendation

Here are some guidelines in somewhat chronological order (from the time students request to sending the letter out):

  • Let students know that you have other commitments and that if they need a letter from you, they need to give you at least a month’s notice. Writing a good letter takes (or should take) a day or two and requires the professor to set aside a significant chunk of time for it. So plan ahead and let me know as soon as you think you might want to get a letter from me.
  • What is the letter for? Try to find some information regarding the venue and maybe get detailed information such as the guidelines for fellowship application, grant application etc.
  • Ask the student who else is writing a letter to make sure that you can emphasize specific strengths of the student. This may be preceded with a question to the student such as what would the student like you to highlight in the letter. For example, if the student only took a class from you but has worked in another professor’s lab, it might be best to highlight the student’s academic performance and let the other professor address the research abilities of the student.
  • As you become a senior professor, managing the deadlines of all the student letters of recommendation can get out of hand quickly. Imagine managing the deadlines for 7/8 letters for 4/5 students, or more in some cases. A good system is to have the student make up a calendar of deadlines and email you the list of deadlines, so you can post it somewhere or add it to your calendar system.
  • Before you start writing a letter, it might be a good idea to get some more information from the student. A few things that you could request from the student are:
    • A writing sample (if you are expecting to comment on the writing skills of the student and dont have anything other than a project report of the student’s final project).
    • A detailed curriculum vitae
    • Talk to the student about his/her career goals and the schools s/he is applying to. Take notes when meeting with the student, as it will immensely help you when writing the letter.
    • In addition to the previous item, get the official statement of purpose that the student is planning to submit with their application.
    • An unofficial transcript will help learn more about the student’s academic performance.
    • Other samples of work such as project reports for other classes, final papers, etc.
    • Requesting the student for a list of achievements from the student will be useful when you write the letter.

So what makes a great recommendation letter? Even though we may not know it, we are pretty good at differentiating between a great recommendation letter and an average (barely thumbs up) kind of a letter. Here are some things to keep in mind when writing a letter (if you plan to write a great one; If not, read the last part of this post about gently recommending students to other potential recommenders):

  • Back up claims with anecdotes. Merely saying that ‘Mary is a hardworking student’ sounds like she works hard but doesnt get much done. Back it up with claims to make it more believable. Remember that honesty leads to believability.
  • Provide sufficient details about your course/research experience to give the reader some perspective about the situation in which you knew the student. Top 2% in class of 300 or Best student in the last 10 years (use very sparingly) is very useful to the reader.
  • Providing context to school specific situations such as which ones are the harder courses or highlight any specific constraints that you may know of regarding the class, lab or institution.
  • There is nothing wrong with mentioning any fault that the student has and has shown initiative to overcome. Speaking/Writing skills can be one such thing where you can say something like ‘Joe worked towards improving his writing skills through the semester and has shown significant progress.’ Saying something slightly critical doesnt necessarily make your recommendation useless. If anything it adds a little credibility to otherwise overly high flowing appreciation that seems to pervade recommendation letters nowadays.
  • Use of words such as “unquestionably, distinguished himself/herself, extremely positive, ..” that are unequivocally positive make the letter much stronger.
  • Other things that you could include are: length of time that you have known the student, contributions to class discussion, interpersonal skills, career goals, persistence/tenacity, ability to come up with and implement original research ideas, communication skills (written, verbal, interpersonal) and most importantly, potential for success in fellowship/program.
  • Unconscious bias: Stay away from doubt raising sentences such as “appears to be highly motivated”, since it doesnt help the student and only implies that the student may not be motivated but only appears to be. Discussing the appearance of a female student/postdoc in a recommendation letter is strictly forbidden and just wrong!
  • Provide detailed contact information with your title, mailing address, phone number and email address.

In the situation that you do not have anything positive to say about the student, you should try talking the student into getting a letter from someone else and very politely turn down the request. You should clearly inform the student about what you can comment on and what you cannot address in the letter.  Remember that a letter coming from you means something and misleading letters for fellowship/grad school applications can only hurt your and your university’s reputation.

Last but not the least, remember to proofread carefully and print the letter out on department letterhead.

Click here for a few samples and here for a few other guidelines.


Guidelines for Group Projects

November 9, 2010 Leave a comment

With group projects becoming fashionable in most disciplines, we frequently hear grumblings from students regarding the final grade at the end of the semester. The idea behind assigning group projects is to provide students with a ‘real world’ experience where one has to work with people of varying personalities. Though this is entirely true, most companies have competent people with some relevant work experience which makes for a productive group. With most class projects, I have experienced that even good students try hard to make it work and sometimes fall short of their expectations in the end.

Recently, I came across an excellent article on some findings regarding group projects for courses. The paper is ‘Why some groups fail: A survey of students’ experiences with learning groups, SB Feichtner, EA Davis – Journal of Management Education, 1984.’

The authors surveyed students based on their experiences with group projects and found certain interesting trends. I strongly urge you to read the paper, but am happy to summarize findings that I found to be particularly interesting in the paper.

Guidelines for group formation and in class activity

  • Students are more likely to have positive experiences in classes where groups are either formed by the instructor or by a combination of methods (e.g., one instructor collected data on students’ research interests and then grouped those with similar preferences). By nearly a 2 to 1 margin, if students formed their own groups they were likely to list the group experience as being a ‘worst’ group experience.
  • Groups need to remain stable enough through the semester for group cohesiveness to develop so that groups can work effectively on their tasks. Changing groups for every project in the course is found to be a particularly bad idea (and ineffective).
  • Students’ *worst* group experience was when only 10% of total class time was devoted to group work (with an average of 22 hours spent in group work outside the classroom), whereas the *best* group experiences were found when an average of 36% of class time was devoted to group work (with an additional 31 hours spent outside the classroom setting).
  • Students were more likely to have had a good experience when there were 0/1 required group presentations. For 2 or more group presentations were required, students reported a ‘worst’ experience for the group project.
  • Having too few graded group assignments was detrimental to the process of becoming cohesive as a group.
  • Use peer evaluations to grade the project, but do not allot more than 20% of the grade for peer evaluations.

Guidelines for instructors

  • Students are very likely to blame group’s problems on the attitude or lack of competence of the instructor. On the flip side, students who had a positive experience are least likely to credit the instructor.
  • Carefully think through what you want the students to gain from the experience of working in groups. Make sure that the projects are relevant to the class. A large portion of students identified relevance as the number one distinguishing factor between their most positive and least positive group experiences.
  • Be well prepared for every class so that students dont think you are incompetent. Refer to first bullet point 🙂
  • Extremely important to ‘listen in’ when groups are discussing amongst themselves in class. Helps point out problems early in the process and minimize students’ frustrations.
  • Provide immediate feedback to the class with respect to the performance of each group.
  • Encourage students to give their group a name, maybe a logo and sit together during class. Helps engender a feeling of cohesiveness and allows for a productive outcome.

This paper opened my eyes to many of the myths that I have had regarding group constitution for class projects. What are your experiences? Have you had success with varying group sizes, group members through a course?

Lecturing still effective?

November 9, 2010 Leave a comment

Now that the tables have turned and I am no longer a whiny graduate student complaining about how long it takes to graduate or how little I get paid, I have to actually think about real issues such as writing grants and finding funding for my students, working on papers and preparing material for class. Yes, preparing material for class takes a lot longer than one can imagine. It may not seem like a lot of work sitting as a student, but now crafting each class seems like a lot of work. The joy of teaching is obviously why I joined the professor to begin with, but it can get slightly confusing at times.

As I try to become a better teacher, I keep getting bombarded with novel teaching techniques such as active learning, discussion-oriented lectures, effective use of technology in the classroom, unique ways to engage students in and out of the classroom. My question, and one that some of my colleagues have asked recently is, “Is lecturing to a classroom a fading art form? Are we to assume that lecturing is a waste of time?”


As I was thinking about this issue, I came across a few interesting articles on lecturing. I particularly like the opening in this article from ‘Inside Higher Education‘ which says

In the age of computer-based learning, lecturing gets treated like Model-T Ford.

I couldnt help but agree more. Lecturing, as I see, is an essential form of education and clearly has been effective in varying degrees. I agree that hiding behind a podium with the lights turned off and going through a deck of slides is probably more effective at putting students to sleep than a strong sleeping pill. What I dont agree with though, is that adopting new techniques for the sake of it, isnt necessarily the best strategy, if one doesnt assimilate the core idea behind the technique.

Over at TeachingProfessor.com, I found this neat argument towards what lectures can accomplish. I particularly found the quote to be true in my personal life as a student.

…I think that a truly great lecturer has the capacity to change a student’s life, and I think that there is something valuable in students listening to a person who has an effortless command of a subject, in seeing the kind of dedication and erudition a fine lecturer embodies.

I realize that lecturing isnt the most popular technique right now and wonder what you have to say about it? Feel free to leave me some feedback in the comments section – after all this is my first post 🙂