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How Do You Write Effective Letters of Recommendation for Grad School Applicants?

Recommendation letter from 1915One of our goals at ProfHacker is trying to make plain and visible the often unspoken and undiscussed aspects of academic teaching, research, and service. While a PhD, MFA, MD, JD, or any other combination of highly educated letters typically requires several years of coursework, that coursework does not necessarily teach us everything that we will use on a daily basis. Teaching, fortunately, is no longer treated as a complete afterthought to one’s research, although it is still, to my mind, underemphasized in PhD programs (where my experience lies). Service, however, almost completely falls by the wayside as a subject for which graduate students are prepared. We have tackled service issues in the past (for example, see previous posts on mentoring for the first time, mentoring faculty, and mentoring via social media or Jason’s post on why meetings are terrible) and we will continue to do so in the future. Today, I want to kick off a new series focused on writing letters of recommendation.

Yes, the not-so-humble, everyone is above average recommendation letter. Even if you’re still a graduate student and you’ve taught only a few classes, you will likely be asked to provide some letters of recommendation for students. The difficulty is that if you’re a graduate student—or contingent faculty or even newly on the tenure track—you might not have read any letters of recommendation and therefore don’t know what should go into said document (apart from the recommendation, natch).

As a matter of fact, this is the position I find myself in at the moment. While I have occasionally written letters on behalf of students who wanted to apply to be resident assistant in a campus’s dorm, study abroad, or do summer internships, I have recently been asked by two students to write on their behalf as they are applying to graduate programs (a PhD in one case and an MLIS in another). And while I am consulting with colleagues, I also wanted to consult with the amazing ProfHacker readers.

We plan to have more posts in the future about writing letters of recommendation: in support of someone going on the academic job market, in support of a colleague’s tenure proposal, in support of a particular grant or project. For now, however, will you please share your thoughts about how to write an effective letter on behalf of an undergraduate who is applying to graduate school? There will be some differences based on discipline, naturally, but if you’re willing to share your discipline with us those specificities are worth including for readers within those fields.

[Lead image by Flickr user Laineys Repertoire / Creative Commons licensed]

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