The ubiquitous reference letter
We all want to promote the accomplishments of our deserving students when they move on. Writing an effective reference letter is crucial to that process, and yet there is little guidance available to instructors on how to do it well
At some point, every post-secondary student moves on. Undergraduates enrol in graduate programs; graduate students turn into aspiring professionals; students of all types enter the workforce or join the voluntary sector. In almost every case, before they leave their degree behind them these students will arrive at their current and former professors' doors seeking letters of reference.
Considering the importance of these letters to our students' futures, it's shocking how little guidance educators receive on how to write them. Equally surprising is how little research has been undertaken to encourage best practices. For Canadian educators, it should be even more disappointing that there is virtually no literature coming out of this country. What little work has been done is found largely in specialized international journals in English, psychology, sociology or business. Apart from these hard-to-find studies, the limited amount of publicly available guidance on how to write reference letters is primarily in university career centres.
Clearly, then, practitioners of the scholarship of teaching - particularly in Canada but also worldwide - have yet to identify the letter of reference as part of the learning experience. Today, with more and more students enrolling in graduate programs and many students studying outside their home country, professors need to recognize that there are both effective and ineffective ways to write reference letters, and also that different styles are appropriate for different audiences.
The letter-writing process begins well before the referee starts to fill out the relevant forms. Since the receiving universities say the most common flaws in reference letters are vagueness and generalities (according to Lynn Brown's "Fourteen ways to write a better letter of recommendation" in the journal Professional School Counselling, 1999), it is critical that instructors know enough about their subjects to write convincingly before they start.
Should you write a letter?
If a student is familiar to the referee, the writers must first decide whether a letter from them will be in the student's best interest. Do they think highly enough of the individual who has approached them? Do they have any recent experience with them? Is their knowledge appropriate to the application? Research suggests that lukewarm letters are often more harmful than no letter at all, so the decision to write in support of a student should be considered carefully.
When students are less well-known to referees, potential writers should begin by encouraging, if not requiring, applicants to provide them with appropriate supporting information - an updated resumé or CV, an unofficial copy of the student's transcript, a draft of the student's personal statement (which will explain how the student's interests match the program in question), and any other concise information that writers might deem useful. If the student took a course that uses teaching assistants to lead tutorials, seminars, or labs, then the relevant assistants should be contacted for their views of the student's performance. On rare occasions - for instance when a student has been away from university for an extended period and is now hoping to return - a conversation by telephone or in person might be in order.
Most research on letters of recommendation shows that their basic structure is relatively uniform across disciplines and cultures - with one particular caveat. References written for American institutions must consider the impact of federal legislation in the U.S. that allows students access to their letters (unless they choose to give up that right). Non-American students, in particular, should be informed that there is reason to believe, at least anecdotally, that if they choose not to waive their right they will place themselves at a disadvantage, since so-called open letters seem to be taken less seriously than confidential ones by selection committees. Consequently, referees who are writing confidentially should make this clear up front; it will benefit their subjects.
Otherwise, letters are typically made up of four sections. The first serves as an introduction to establish the relationship between the student and the referee, along with the length of time that the two individuals have known each other. The second deals specifically with the student's accomplishments as they relate to the referee (course results, ranking in classes and any other evidence that demonstrates achievement). The third section considers the student's character at a more general, but at the same time personal, level (for example, work ethic, social skills, non-academic achievements, resourcefulness, degree of motivation for the program in question). The conclusion recommends the student to the program in a clear and explicit manner.
The content of the entire letter, and most particularly the strength of the final recommendation, has been known to cause referees grief. Letter inflation, or the exaggeration of a candidate's abilities, is a perpetual concern. Exaggerating puts the referee's credibility in present and future letters at risk, but being honest and critical when others are less so might also prevent a worthy student from gaining a much deserved opportunity. Fortunately, relatively recent research by Michael Ryan and David Martinson in the Journalism and Mass Communication Educator suggests that references are generally less inflated than most would assume, and writers can therefore feel reasonably comfortable speaking the so-called truth.
When trying to determine how complete their letter should be, referees should consider cultural differences. Anecdotally, in a 1998 article in English for Specific Purposes, Karen Precht noted that British admissions committees seem to expect more balanced letters, and therefore perceive referees who find faults in their subjects as more credible. American readers, on the other hand, are more inclined to interpret the listing of an applicant's flaws as a vote of non-confidence. Americans are more likely to respond favourably to longer letters that include personal anecdotes; they assume that the ability to recount an intimate story demonstrates a higher level of familiarity with a candidate and therefore a better ability to make an informed judgment. In contrast, British and German letters are generally more factual and might even come across to North Americans as abrupt because of their more intense focus on the candidate's measurable academic accomplishments.
From my own personal experience, I have always been advised to write longer, more personal letters, which suggests that Canadians - like Americans - would react more appreciatively to personal letters of recommendation that don't find fault. However, this would vary based on where the individual Canadians on the committee did their graduate work: those who studied in Europe or the U.K. were more likely taught to respect the European tradition.
In sum, the tentative nature of these observations is meant to point out that there is a gap in the current scholarship of teaching that has been caused at least in part by an overly narrow definition of the student learning experience. Particularly in today's academic environment, education developers must acknowledge that a growing international commitment to lifelong learning and to multiple, formal academic experiences has made the letter of reference a crucial component of our students' futures. It is therefore incumbent upon teacher training and faculty development programs to take responsibility for this aspect of the learning experience by developing modules that will give faculty (and teaching assistants) the tools they need to write fairly and effectively.
Dr. Chapnick is deputy chair of the department of command, leadership and management at the Canadian Forces College and assistant professor of defence studies at Royal Military College. The best guide he found for letters of reference is at the University of Michigan website (www.cpp.umich.edu/students/refletter/writingguide/index.html).
A letter of reference in four parts
- The first part is an introduction to establish the relationship between the student and the referee.
- The second part deals specifically with the student's accomplishments as they relate to the referee.
- The third section considers the student's character at a more general level.
- The conclusion recommends the student to the program in a clear and explicit manner.