Letters of Recommendation
It is often the case that students will ask me to write a letter of recommendation (LOR) for various things like applications to graduate schools, for scholarships, jobs, to be a Stetson Ambassador or RA, study abroad, etc. Writing LORs is part of what it means to be a professor, and I am happy to do so for students. This is a pay-it-forward kind of thing as I asked my professors to write LORs for me for various things. I get excited when I can be a small part of a student's earning a prestigious scholarship or getting into grad school.
There are a few things you should be aware of before you ask me to write a LOR for you:
You need to give me at least two weeks (if possible) to work writing a LOR into my schedule, especially if I have never written one for you before. It takes a lot of time to write a letter as I do my best to tailor my letter to exactly what you are applying for. Usually, an initial letter takes an hour to compose and get ready to send off. This may not sound like much, but I do not have free hours floating around in my schedule. So please, give me at least two weeks if you can. Sometimes you find out about an opportunity at the last minute, and I will do my best to accommodate your urgent need.
I do not make stuff up when I write a LOR. Just because I agree to write a LOR for you does not mean I am going to write you a strong letter. I have to be honest in my LORs or else none of them will mean anything. That said, I try to emphasize your strengths as well as I know them. If you do good work, I can write a good letter.
The better I know you, the better job I can do in my LOR for you. If I only interact with you in class, then that is all I can write about. Often, grad schools and employers, even distributors of scholarships want to know what kind of person you are. If we never talk about your goals and aspirations, all I can write about are numbers like grade averages, absences from class, etc. Not long ago a senior came to me for a LOR. I said I would write for him, but I had not seen much of the student at all since his first-year seminar. I could not write a strong letter because I knew nothing about him other than what he had done in my class and what his current GPA was. It is best if we have more than one class together, but that is not necessary. One of the great benefits of attending a small university like Stetson is that I can get to know you well enough to write about more than just grades in my grade book. You have to take the initiative, though.
Once I have written a LOR for you and have an electronic copy of that, it is easier for me to adjust it for other applications you might make. I haven't counted recently to see what my highest number for one student is, but for one student I know I have written at least 11 LORs over the years. There will probably be more, and I can do that because this student has stayed in touch with me even after graduation. When I need to write a new LOR, I can go back to my most recent one, adjust, tweak, add, AND increase the length of time I have known the applicant! It is great to be able to say something like, "I have known Chris for eight years now and have watched Chris grow and develop blah, blah blah." Anyway, don't worry about asking for more LORs. Once I have the first one done it is not much trouble at all to write a new one.
I do not allow students to see the contents of a LOR that I write for that student (or any others, for that matter). In order for a LOR to mean something, the student cannot have access to it. Most applications will ask you if you want to waive your right to see materials submitted in support of your application, and the requests from grad schools and scholarship foundations will tell me whether you have or have not waived your right. If a grad school or scholarship foundation knows that you have not waived your right to see the LORs, they will not give the LORs as much weight as they would if they knew you were not going to see them. This is because they think recommenders will not be as honest if they know you will be able to see what they write for you. I will not write a LOR for you unless you have waived your right to see it. So please make sure you do that before asking me to write for you.
When you ask me to write a LOR at least two weeks ahead of time, please tell me how I am to submit the letter. These days, most LORs are submitted electronically by uploading a file. Some, though, must be mailed in separately. In rare cases, I have to give you a sealed envelope with my LOR in it for you to submit all of your materials together in one package. If this is the case, I will only give you one letter. If you tell me you lost it or that it was damaged and that you need another one, the answer will be No. (This is to discourage you from opening the letter, reading it, and then coming up with a story about how it was damaged or whatever. ;-) ) I also need to know what I am writing for and what the organization is looking for in their grantees, admitted students, etc. I may ask you to visit me in my office to talk about your application and intent before I write to make sure I am on the same page as you are in this particular application.
My LORs are as strong as your work is, as strong as you are as a person. Work hard, do your best, and I will do my best to help you get where you want to go.
Letters of recommendation are important in applications for grad schools, scholarships, and jobs. I usually do not hear back from schools or scholarship foundations to whom I write letters, but not too long ago, I did. Click here to read the letter I received that gives you some indication as to how important they are. (I blacked out the student's name to protect her or his identity.)
Okay, that is a lot to think about, but I want you to think about it early and often. Most of what I have said applies to most professors. Please develop good relationships with a professor or two in your field so he or she can get to know you well enough to write a strong, comprehensive LOR when you need one.
As always, if you have any questions, just ask!