Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Letters of recommendation: an expert's view

Today: letters of recommendation

Like the statement of purpose, letters of recommendation are a chance to have your special qualities and motivations shine through. Even though you do not control the content to the same extent, you can have a major influence on what your "referees" write.

SAIS requires two letters. Many candidates, particularly those graduating this year or who finished their undergraduate studies recently, will tap two professors. Candidates who have been out of university for some time will want to ask for a professional reference.

(Can you submit a third reference? Yes, you can.)

Under our new online application system, the "referees" (ie, the authors of the letters) can submit them online or via mail. If they come through mail, they should be in a sealed, official envelope with the author's signature across the seal. This ensures confidentiality.

Prof. Mark Gilbert
Prof. Mark Gilbert has written loads of letters of reference. We turned to him for his thoughts on the do's and don't's.


Q: You have written letters of recommendation for many students. How does a student know if it is appropriate to approach you for a letter of recommendation? How well do you have to know a student before you will write a letter?

Gilbert: I will normally write a long letter of reference for a student who has completed a course with me. I like to be able to comment on a person's writing skills and character before I write anything on his or her behalf. I have made a handful of exceptions to this rule, but only for students whose contribution to a class has been out of the ordinary and who really needed, as opposed to wanted, an early reference. Note, too, I talk of letters of reference, not recommendation. I think a letter that shows a full knowledge of the person you are talking about, even if it may contain some criticism, is more "authentic" in the eyes of the people who read them.

Q: What do you like to know about the student and their plans before you write a letter?

Gilbert: I always ask students to give me a short CV and explain to me the nature of the internship or job that they are applying for. When looking over candidates for admission to SAIS, I greatly preferred to read letters from professors who clearly knew the person they were recommending well and who also could relate the student to SAIS and its programme. A generic note saying "Ms X is a very nice person who works hard and got good grades in my class" is helpful, but hardly convincing. I think letters to be effective need to be crafted individually for a given student. Professors at German universities, in my experience, are very good at this. They seem really to care about their students' future and are stern yet just about their personalities and abilities.

Q: Do you share the letter with the student or is it confidential? If it is confidential, why so?

Gilbert: I have never shared the contents of a letter with a student except once by necessity -- the would-be employer (the Danish government) remarkably wanted the candidate, rather than me, to send the letters as .pdf files in her dossier. Since it was a prestigious opportunity for this student, for whom I have a very high regard, I acquiesced, but I wasn't happy about it. I think letters of reference should be confidential.

Q: How much time in advance of a deadline do you like a request for a letter of recommendation to come to you? Are you annoyed if students check up on the status of the letter?

Gilbert: I would certainly not be irritated if a student checked up on me, while I certainly like students to give me ample warning that they would like a letter to be written on their behalf. The reason in both cases is the same: I have a lot to do and letters have to be fitted into everything else I'm doing. I normally write letters quickly once I've agreed to do them, but when you are doing a lot of things, it can happen that you forget one. So stay on my case.

Q: Do you prefer to mail your letters or to download them online?

Gilbert: Download. I am normally technophobic, but  I find that the online systems are very well done and persuade you to write the reference quickly. It seems like less hassle. Like writing an email.

Q: Any pitfalls or fatal errors you would warn applicants against when it comes to letters of reference?

Gilbert: Avoid letters from people who talk about themselves and how important their institution is and who then add in the final paragraph, sometimes in these very words, "This person has studied with me, therefore you should take her." What does this imply? It implies that students should judge the character of their letter writers carefully and avoid the pompous, the megalomaniac, and the vainglorious. I'm tempted to add that in academia at least this implies that the pool of potential letter writers is a small one....

Nelson Graves