The Odds of Having Your Letter of Recommendation Read

If you’ve applied to grad school (or really, any place that asked for recommendations), you might have carefully considered who you wanted to write your letters of recommendation. For me, it was: the news director at a station I worked at, my undergraduate thesis advisor, and another professor who knew me and my work well enough to write something thoughtful:

Julie Schumacher, a professor of creative writing at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities wrote in the Chronicle of Higher of Education that she received more than 1,500 letters of recommendation to read and went through just half of them:

How many of those 1,644 letters of recommendation did I actually read? In the case of the M.F.A. applications, I confess I didn’t even click through the forest of links to access the letters unless the fiction was stellar—meaning that more than 800 carefully composed missives of praise went unread.

I generate 50 to 100 letters of recommendation per year of my own, contributing to the oversupply as conscientiously as I can on behalf of my students, while understanding that the majority of the references I submit will be skimmed at best. (Evidence of the letter-of-rec’s increasing absurdity: While serving on award committees here at Minnesota, I have on more than one occasion opened an e-file and discovered that—in lauding a student or a colleague—I had written a letter to myself.)

My takeaway from this is that you should be worried less about letters of recommendations and more about whether or not your work can speak for itself. Schumacher also talks about what letters typically look like: people with recognizable names or from well-respected institutions tend to write short letters because, perhaps, their name should be good enough. Less recognizable names tend to write thoughtful letters.

I don’t know what any of the letters of recommendations said about me (none of the three I asked sent me a copy, and I didn’t ask for any), but what I can say is that I got into the school I applied for. I’m hoping my work was evidence of my capability.

Photo: Anne Stanley59

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7 Comments / Post A Comment

OllyOlly (#669)

This is great news to me, I am currently sweating bullets since my boss asked me to write the first draft of my letter of rec to grad school and I have no idea what to write.

I can say if you are applying to a smaller program, someone is probably reading them! We only have about 30 students, and we read all the letters for our applicants. They aren’t a big part of our evaluation system, you mainly just get extra points for exceptional recs, but we do read them.

Beaks (#3,488)

@OllyOlly When I had to do this for a scholarship my sister saved me since she had already had to do a bunch of these sorts of things. This is a link she shared that was helpful: http://scientopia.org/blogs/science-professor/2011/11/30/imperfectionist. The comments are especially useful.

This is the basic format she gave me: I am _, I know candidate through ___, and in my experience, candidate has been shown to be an exemplary candidate for blah because of x,y,z.

My professors did very little editing to my drafts, but I did get the scholarship, so I guess it worked. The point in the article about your work speaking for itself probably also played a key role, though.

coastalelite (#2,528)

this is SUCH a relief

LookUponMyWorks (#2,616)

Interesting. I used to work in admin for a prominent STEM program. We got nowhere near 1000+ applications, but each application was reviewed closely. Definitely it was all about the candidate’s creds first – grades, coursework and research experience, personal statement (yes, even in STEM programs we were interested in seeing how well they could write!), GRE scores, etc, and then we looked at the references. And we read the references closely – maybe the prof had a good explanation for why the applicant had nearly flunked O Chem, maybe they were rockstars in the lab but had difficulty focusing in class, hence the so-so grades, etc.

Kation (#4,849)

@LookUponMyWorks That was very close to my experience as a STEM applicant. When I was visiting schools before I made my choice, I had a couple of professors say something like, “Oh, I wanted to talk to you, I saw you had a recommendation letter from So-and-So.” I’m in a very small field compared to some other STEM disciplines, and all the movers and shakers pretty much know or know of each other. The content of the letter was often less important than the mere fact of it; the professors have known each other for years, they trust each other’s judgement, and if So-and-So thought highly enough of me to write a letter, then I could be assumed to be a good candidate.

LookUponMyWorks (#2,616)

@Kation There was definitely some of that, too. “Oh Prof. So and So at Some Such University thinks they’re a jewel; let’s bring them in for an interview!”

HelloTheFuture (#5,275)

And now it is time to tell the story of my grad school applications.

Two of my rec writers came through right away. The third… didn’t. I started emailing reminders, which was definitely a bad etiquette move on my part, but I was too young to understand that I should have cut my losses and found someone else. (It wouldn’t have occurred to me. This woman was my mentor and adviser and had been involved in every project I’d completed.)

So one afternoon, a graduate program called me at work and said “We’re sitting here with your application right now. We want to move forward, but we need that third rec letter this afternoon.” I called the faculty member who had still not sent the letters. She picked up the phone and said “You’ve nagged me too many times, I don’t even WANT to write a letter for you anymore.”

I ended up getting into a different grad program, later on.

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