How can one improve one’s letters of recommendation?

Query from a reader:

A good friend of mine who is not in a search committee but knows someone who is in a search committee told me my letters of recommendation are short and meaningless, and that this was the main reason why I wasn’t shortlisted (she has a good cv, but with such letters, there must be something fishy). How do I go about asking my referees in a tactful way to make a longer letter? What is supposed to be in a good letter of recommendation? How do I find new letter writers? (I will obviously still ask my thesis advisor, and he is kindly disposed towards me.)

10 thoughts on “How can one improve one’s letters of recommendation?

  1. I would simply tell your advisor what you were told, and ask them to talk to your letter writers about it. Most letter writers are clueless about the norms and conventions of letters, especially when starting out, or when writing for a kind of job they haven’t had. The ‘most’ there includes me! I love getting feedback on what would make letters better, and I imagine at least some of your writers would too.

    Having said that, it could be awkward to approach all of them directly, but this really is a part of the advisor’s job.

  2. I hope this helps, obvious though it may be to some: Give your letter writers LOTS of information about you. Don’t presume they remember every class you took with them, every paper you wrote, the conferences you attended–don’t assume they remember ANY details about your work or professional accomplishments at all. Give them a CV, copies of papers, a list of things you have done with them specifically. Give them pointers on what areas of interest you have and what your research and teaching plans are. Give them the fodder they need to write a detailed letter. I write lots of letters for students–undergrad and grad, and some for faculty seeking appointments, promotions, or awards. Usually, I know how well someone ranks for me–what I think of their general level of attainment, acumen, intelligence, etc., but it can be hard to remember how that impression was formed–in what contexts, with which specific forums. So I always ask for the info, then I have it at my fingertips and it is easy to write an informed letter, by quickly perusing the materials to job my memory. Good luck!

  3. Tomatoes is spot on here. You need to give your writes as much information as possible. If you already did this and still got crummy letters then it’s worth talking to your adviser and asking for more detailed/longer letters.

  4. This is a copy of the questions on a form one of my teachers made me fill out when I asked her from a recommendation:

    Why do I want to go to these graduate programs?
    Experiences that demonstrate leadership and/or commitment to my musical / personal growth – during and since college:
    How I am qualified for the rigors of the schools to which I am applying:
    My strengths:
    My growing edges (areas of improvement):

    thoughtful answers to these questions, along with a clear table of where letters need to be sent and when they are due, led to some great recommendations. Hope this helps.

  5. I would agree with Tomatoes, too. If you’re in the process of finishing up grad school, be sure that your committee members have recent versions of your completed dissertation chapters. And be sure to give them enough time to write the letters. Ideally, I’d send them the materials a month (or two) in advance. And you can even ask, “Is there anything else that it would be helpful for you to see before writing my letter of rec?” That way, they’ll know that your purpose in sending the materials is to help them write a well-informed letter.

    Also, I sometimes loose track of what my students are up to once theyv’e graduated. If you’ve been away on a one-year job or post-doc, a detailed update of what you’ve been doing might be helpful. Although letter writers are more likely to talk about what you’ve done with them, this other information can be helpful in contextualizing what you’ve done (and in explaining why you’re prepared to move into other positions).

    And you might also want to talk to your advisor (reporting what you heard about your letters) or to the faculty member in charge of placement. I know that the advisor and/or placement director at some schools actually looks the letters over before they’re sent out by the department. But that can, of course, be a bit delicate.

  6. Before my second year on the market, I heard a couple of stories like OP’s. I asked my dissertation director if it would be appropriate for him to take a look at my letters. He told me then that he already had. He said they were “very nice” and that I had nothing to worry about. Good enough for me. As someone suggested, this seems like a delicate issue, but my director was certainly not the shy type. Is this practice common?

    When I was an undergrad applying to grad school, I learned that one of my recommenders was not doing me any favors. Another professor saw his letter and told me I would be lucky to get into any of the schools I’d applied to. In the end, I was accepted to about half of them. Here is what happened. The bad letter came from a prof I’d had one class with, when I first started the major. I didn’t know much, about anything, and didn’t make a great showing. But I asked him for a letter anyway, because he was department chair and I thought that would matter. Also, I was really doing well in the program by that time, and I assumed that he knew this. Wrong. My other recommendations came from profs I’d taken many classes with, over about three years. They knew a lot more about me than the dept chair did, and also knew my work at the end of my time in the program. The dept chair knew only my work from one class, and that from the start of my time with them. Anyway, I guess what I’m saying is that I agree with those who advise OP to give more information to the relevant profs. I’d also suggest thinking reflectively about exactly what those profs are likely to remember, or how they are likely to frame your time with them from their pov.

  7. The reader’s story really bothers me. I think the advice given is very good, but my concern is whether what she (as I assume) is experiencing a lack of due care that can be the result of bias. I think we might ask departments to perform a fairly minimal amount of oversight here. Just reminding faculty that they need to have and use relevant info might be enough.

    Any thoughts on this?

  8. As a writer of letters of recommendation at a small liberal arts college for women, and as a philosophy department chair, I do think that it’s very important to get good letters of recommendation. I agree that even in small schools it is a good idea for students to supply letter writers with as much information as they can, including dates of courses taken and date of graduation, and also information about the students’ activities outside the classroom. A service we offer our students is giving feedback on their statements of purpose, since we believe that the most effective statements are those that are very specific about why the student wants to pursue graduate study in philosophy, and why the program she’s applying to is a good match for her interests.
    However, I have to express some frustration on behalf of our students about whether these letters get a fair reading when the readers note that the student comes from a small liberal arts college. Colleges like ours and smaller state universities are where many of the people who would lend diversity to philosophy grad programs receive their educations. But if these students are given scant consideration because they have graduated from an institution that’s doesn’t register on the reputational scale of philosophy programs, it matters little how closely we’ve worked with them, how well we’ve prepared them for grad school, or how carefully we’ve crafted their letters of recommendation. If we were serious about diversifying the discipline of philosophy, we’d re-examine our assumptions about what kinds of undergraduate programs best prepare people to do philosophy. Could students from less prestigious undergraduate programs still do “good” philosophy at the graduate level? Should admissions committees at philosophy grad programs do more to promote this kind of diversity?

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