Recommendation letter writer’s block

I generally enjoy writing. In graduate school, I even had the opportunity to create and teach an undergraduate science writing class. But it was during this class, ironically, that I discovered something I don’t particularly like writing: recommendation letters.

The first time a student asked me to write a recommendation letter for his application to grad school, I hesitated. I knew very little about him. He had average grades and seemed pleasant enough. I think he had brown hair.

Not wanting to say no but at the same time not wanting to write, “He has average grades and seems pleasant enough; he has brown hair,” I turned to Google to find out how everyone else did it.

Google helpfully reminded me to list specific examples of the student’s excellence (of which I knew none), to explain why my personal assessment carried weight (um, did it?), and to praise the student in terms that made it clear I would not write similar praise for lesser students (yeah, but I probably would).

So I sweated over the letter for hours, making sure to compliment him—while also attempting to place my praise in the context of future kudos for other students who would probably want recommendation letters. Somehow I eventually submitted a reasonable missive, the best tribute I could muster to his tawny-locked mediocrity.

Then I waited. Would he get into grad school? And if so, would my letter make the difference? I never found out.

I did realize, however, to my horror, that this experience was the tip of the recommendation letter iceberg, and I’d probably have to write letters for many, many more students in the years to come. I could envision the hours sitting at my computer, as I’d done for this student, muttering, “Brown hair, brown hair … I think he once told me to have a good weekend. Could I focus on that?”

Since then, I’ve written dozens of recommendation letters for students applying to medical school, graduate school, and summer internships. And I’ve been happy to find that recommending stellar students can be gratifying. But writing letters for the brown haired and pleasant enough can still be a challenge. Here are a few tricks to help you write these semi-sacred documents efficiently and ethically. (I have some advice for you letter requestors as well to make sure your recommenders mention more than your hair color, but that’s coming next month.)

Ask the student to meet. An in-person conversation can help humanize a student you barely knew or haven’t thought about in a long time. But be careful not to overgeneralize based on one interaction. Lines such as, “Throughout the years, I’ve known [Student] to be punctual, drinking a cappuccino, and wearing a green shirt” won’t impress the committee.

Ask the student for a CV. You don’t know the student holistically, so this will give you a better sense of their accomplishments, dreams, and hobbies. The danger here is that you might end up parroting their CV in the letter. So just remember that the student’s applications will also include, you know, their CV.

Relate a specific anecdote. Reviewers will read dozens or even hundreds of letters, many of which will sound similar. But interesting stories stick in people’s minds, so describe an incident that demonstrates some quality the student would benefit from highlighting. “She’s good at asking for what she wants,” you might write. “In fact, just this morning, she asked me to write a recommendation letter.”

Acknowledge that every student can’t be the best ever. At some point, you’ll ask a devious question: If it’s unlikely that any one reviewer will read any two of my letters, what’s to stop me from calling every student the shining light of their generation? That’s validly a blind spot in an imperfect process. Why establish a context of compliments if you’ll be the only one who appreciates that context? The thing is, an undeservedly glowing review may benefit an average student, but it threatens to devalue the recommendation letters for your best students. And when the cosmos align and you have the next Nobel laureate in your class, you’ll only be able to write, “[Student] is the bestest student ever.” Developing a spectrum of praise keeps you in the clear both ethically and grammatically.

Oh, what the hey, recommend your sweet self while you’re at it. I once had a co-worker who requested a medical school recommendation letter from the renowned scientist who headed her lab. She ended up reading the letter—she was allowed to—and to her surprise, the vast majority was a listing of the recommender’s accomplishments and accolades. Then, at the end, for a single paragraph, he graciously talked about her. That’s an outrageous example of the “since I’m so wonderful, you can trust my recommendation” method. Taking it to this extreme obviously makes you a tool, but there’s something to be said for adding a few words about yourself to reinforce that you’re a scientist with legitimate opinions, that you’re not just some schmo down the hall, and that you’re not the student’s parent.

Sometimes declining is the best option. It’s hard to refuse a student’s request, especially when they look at you with those big, pleading eyes and those big, pleading parents pushing them toward medical school. And the top students in your class usually self-select as the ones who request recommendation letters—after all, it’s in their best interest to ask someone inclined to laud them. But sometimes a not-so-great student asks you to write a letter full of greatness. When this happens avoid saying, “I’m sorry; you are simply unworthy of praise.” Instead, politely suggest that you may not be the best person to ask. If the student persists, hide in the bushes.

After all of your careful efforts crafting the letter, it would be nice to learn how it was received. Sadly, most students will never tell you whether they were accepted to the institution to which they applied, let alone whether your letter helped. A few will write a nice thank-you note. But many will disappear into the ether, never to be heard from again—until you find out 20 years later that one of them has become the competitor who scoops you or the new hire who takes your office when you lose your grant. Aren’t you glad you wrote that letter?

The recommendation letter is an imperfect method of gatekeeping in science. But despite its flaws, writing one is still a nice favor for a student who could use the help—whether or not that student is truly the bestest.

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