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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