Recommendation letter overload!

Our students are scrambling to apply for summer internships or to get that summer or first-after-college job, and they are asking us to write letters of recommendation for them.

refletterimage I don’t know about you, but I find that my students are applying for so many different positions or programs that they are often asking me for ten or more letters. One recent student applied to twenty different programs! If you have twenty advisees and teach upwards of a hundred students or more each year, you could be asked by many students to write many letters. This service goes on for years, as even alums ask for letters if they pursue graduate work or line up job interviews.

It’s much easier to apply for fellowships, programs and jobs than it was in the dark ages before the internet. Students can “google” their way to a long list of options. They fill out the applications online. Some graduate programs like law schools and medical schools have a “common” application where they list the different schools and submit a single application. So, pretty soon, they can rack up a pretty hefty list of applications.

If you are one of the recommendation letter writers, you might have to submit 12-15 or more letters for each student. Most places will send you an email “prompt” and you fill out the online form and upload your prepared letter. Sure, it’s easier than printing out letters, signing and mailing them in envelopes, but, with the explosion of applications and insane numbers of email prompts, some requiring you to set up a password and make a user profile, the whole process can take quite a bit of time.

How do you manage this task?

1. When students ask me to write letters, I request that they send me an email with a list of all the programs/schools/positions, the due date of the letter and how the letter is to be submitted (eg. in response to an email prompt, or to a provided email address…). I request students give me at least two weeks’ notice in order that I can schedule a letter-writing session into my crowded calendar.

2. I have a folder in my email for “pending letters.” When I receive an email prompt or note from the student with an email address, I place the email in this folder.

3. Usually once or twice a week during the busiest letter-writing times, I schedule in an hour or two to write letters, saving them in a folder on my computer. I usually prepare a general letter based on the information provided by the student. For students I know well, I try to tailor the letter to the particular program. For students I have only had in one course and/or who didn’t really stand out, I write a “one size fits all” letter.

4. I have a letter template, complete with letterhead and electronic signature. I’ve also amassed a bunch of letters over the years. Sometimes I open an old letter from someone who took the same course for some inspiration since it’s easier to start from something than to generate letters de novo all the time.

5. I take a group of prompts at a time and fill out the online forms, attach the letter and submit. Then, I move the email prompt to the trash. All programs send me a confirmation or thank you email and this I place in a folder called “Keep for reference.” That way, I have a record of my letter submissions in case anything happens.

This system works for me. What do you do? There have got to be some better ideas!

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