Tis the season for recommendation letters

This time of year you, like me, are probably receiving emails from your advisees and students you have had in class, asking you to write them recommendation letters for summer programs or graduate school or even medical school applications.

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You probably get a fairly steady stream of requests from current and former students, even alums who might have graduated several years ago.

It seems like most of the students who ask me to write letters are applying to six or ten or sometimes fifteen different programs. For each one, I typically get an email prompt which takes me to a web site that requires a password. Once that screen is finished, there are often several additional screens to fill out drop down menus or button-choice questions, culminating in a screen that asks me to upload a document. Some sites only take pdf documents. Some sites only take word documents. Some sites require a copy/paste into a designated box. Sometimes, the prompt is from a prospective employer who sends an email and wants a letter sent via return email.

I’ve started keeping track of this part of my job because I feel like it takes quite a bit of time, particularly as common deadlines approach for schools and summer programs. So far this month (so, just January!), eight students have asked for letters, totalling so far 50 separate web-based letters! And classes haven’t even yet begun this term. I’ve already spent at least 10 hours on this, writing letters then wading through my email prompts.

You don’t want your letter to look like this….

If you don’t really know the student all that well and, if you aren’t given information or time, about all you can write is that the student came to class, did the work, earned the grade. To write a better letter that will actually be helpful requires time, knowledge and the sense that the time investment you make is valued by the student.

I have an email box that helps me keep track of the letters that I need to do and I ask the requesters to send me a list with due dates. Nonetheless, as the semester gets into full swing, it gets difficult to fit in the letter writing, particularly if the student requesters do things last minute.

This service we do for our students goes undocumented. It is simply an expectation, one that most of us willingly undertake. Of course we want to help our students succeed as they make their way from student to professional. I think it’s important that we acknowledge this activity. It takes hours of our time. I also think we might want to talk with our students, perhaps the place is in advising sessions, about letter writing.

Students need to be aware of the importance of the letters. As such, they should choose letter writers carefully, give them ample time, give them ample information. We need them to be aware of just how many letters we write.

We, for our part, need to develop ways to keep track of letters, to keep track of how much time we need for writing letters. What do you do?