So you want a rec?

Dozens of people ask me for letters of recommendation each semester, and I am usually happy to oblige. I prefer to give recommendations to those who have done good work for me, either in class or outside of it. Generally, if it is an application to grad school, that means “A” work or the equivalent. If it is for a program at the undergraduate level or for employment, this isn’t always the case (though it usually is). Since many grad schools ask the recommender how long he has known the student, I prefer to have at least known you for a couple of months, though longer is better.

I don’t give bad recommendations. If I can’t give you a positive recommendation, I’ll tell you this and suggest you find someone else. Often, this is because I just don’t know you well enough to be able to provide a thorough and accurate picture of your abilities. I do consider this a “recommendation” and not an “evaluation,” so if I can’t say things that are nice, I won’t say anything at all. Do not hesitate to approach me to ask, but be aware that I may say “no.”

When I do give you a positive evaluation, I may suggest areas in which your strengths are not as apparent. If you are shy, I’m likely to mention this. If you are hardworking, but not particularly creative, I will also likely mention it. This gives those who get the review more to go on, and allows them to see if you are a good fit. I will be as accurate as I can be, if only because principle demands it.

I request the following items from anyone who wants a letter of recommendation from me, even if I’ve known them for five years:

  • a resume
  • a transcript (unofficial is fine)
  • the statement of purpose or cover letter you will be sending
  • a brochure, or at least the URL, from the program to which you will be applying, or some other document that suggests what it is that they are looking for in an applicant
  • the instructions to recommenders, including any special forms, and the address to which the review will be sent (some are kind enough to provide addressed envelopes, which is a helpful gesture)
  • the deadline by which the recs must be completed

And then, you will hear from me when I’ve sent out the recs.

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  1. Posted 12/18/2002 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

    That personal statement is killing me. Maybe I’m trying to make it too perfect. ::sigh::

  2. alex
    Posted 12/20/2002 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

    Making a personal statement is something that requires practice. Yes, it should be honest, but it needn’t be set in stone. I know that sounds a little funny, but there it is. A personal statement should demonstrate that you have concrete goals and how whatever (going to graduate school, joining the French Foreign Legion, etc.) is a step on the way to those goals.

    No one will hold you to it. No one will say, at the end of the program, “But your personal statement said X!” Personal statements grow as people grow. Not to get too calculus on you, but they provide a kind of instantaneous read on your trajectory: where you are and where you want to be.

    IMHO, the worst possible statement of purpose goes something like: “I’m not sure what I want to do, but I figure grad school will help me decide.” I have a feeling this would be a truthful statement for most who attend graduate school, it is more often than not a recipe for disaster. It takes a considerable amount of motivation to push oneself through a graduate program, and those who are going through it either because (a) they falsely believe that the world will be handed to them on a silver platter with the appending of a couple of new letters or (b) they are trying to avoid getting a career and this will allow them to put it off for a few years, are unlikely to succeed.

    That’s not to say that the added demonstration of skills or the current job market are not germane to the decision of whether or not to go to (e.g.) grad school, just that admissions committees are often looking for someone who looks like they’ve got their head screwed on straight and will be motivated to excel in the program.

    (As a side note, it is absolutely possible to be too one-tracked in one’s approach to a graduate program, and miss out on a lot by not seeing all of the opportunities, but this is the rare case. Most students come in with less than zero direction.)

    So, pick a dream and tell them how you are going to get there. Think of this not as a chore, but as an exercise in structured daydreaming. Even now, I try to do at least one “mission statement” sort of document each year for my own personal consumption, just to make sure I am moving in some direction. There is no reason to decide definitely today where you will be in five years or ten years. But until you do finalize such a decision, you should be moving in the direction of one of your goals.

    The only perfect personal statement is the one that is true to your own interests and desires. Oh, and that is lacking in spelling or grammatical errors. And rhetorically compelling, it should be that too. But that’s all that is needed :).

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