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Sound Writing

Subsection 10.2.1 Three Intersecting Perspectives

In true liberal arts fashion, this handbook recommends that you consider three distinct perspectives as you are going through the process of requesting letters of recommendation: your perspective, your evaluator’s perspective, and your professor’s perspective.

Your Perspective.

When you ask a professor for a letter of recommendation, you should have answers to the following questions:
  • Why am I interested in the program I’m applying for?
  • How do I think this program will help me with my plans for my future?
  • What do I want a professor to say about me?
  • Which professors have seen me overcome challenges, engage with course material, take on a leadership role, or do great research?
You’ll probably need to think about the answers to these questions as part of your application anyway, but you might not have realized that the answer to these questions affect who you should even consider asking for a letter of recommendation. Different faculty members work in different fields and will know you in different capacities. What you want to share about yourself with an application committee determines who you should ask to write about you.

Your Evaluator’s Perspective.

Now imagine that you are the person who runs the program that you are applying for.
  • What qualities do you want to see in a successful applicant, and what experiences is it important that applicants have?
  • What institutional values do you have, and how will they affect which applicants you select?
  • Which people know your applicants well enough to honestly evaluate the qualities/skills/experiences that they have had? Which professors do you trust most to also understand your values?
  • How much do you care about letters of recommendation? Do you just want to know that a student is competent, or are you only interested in an applicant if they immensely impressed their professor?
Again, you might already know that you needed to think about these questions for your application, but notice that the answers to these questions also dictate which faculty members will have the most influence over the people deciding whether or not to consider your application favorably!

Tip 10.2.1.

At this point, you might be inclined to say, “now how am I supposed to answer those questions? I can’t get inside the heads of the people on the application committee!” That’s true, but you can guess the answer to a lot of these questions by carefully reading the program’s website and by talking to to students, professors, or staff members who are familiar with the program.

Your Professor’s Perspective.

Finally, think about where your professor is coming from and what they might need to think about as they are considering whether they are willing to write you a letter and what they can say about you based on their personal interactions with you:
  • Do I know my student well enough to write about them in detail? What can I say with honesty and integrity about this student?
  • What qualities did I see my student exhibit? Was I impressed with these qualities?
  • What do I know about the program that my student is applying for, and what qualities are the evaluators looking for in an applicant?
  • What does my student want the application evaluators to know about them?
  • Who will read my letter?
  • How am I going to keep track of all of the letters that I agreed to write for various students?
Professors often write letters of recommendation to their peers and colleagues at other institutions. Their reputations are at stake when they recommend their students for other opportunities, so they take the integrity of the process seriously. This perspective should not make you panic, but it should encourage you to put yourself in your professor’s shoes and think about the things they have to consider when writing a letter of recommendation.
If a professor is going to write you a great letter of recommendation, they need to see that you have the qualities that are important for what you are applying for. These could include perseverance through struggle, curiosity about a topic, clever approaches to problems, or any number of other things. The bottom line is that a letter of recommendation is a professor’s argument that you’re a good candidate for the thing you are applying for, and professors can best support this argument if they have a lot of specific evidence about why they think that is. Remember that helping a professor get to know you is not just about how much time you spend with them; it is about what you show them about yourself during that time.
Ideally, your letter-writer is someone who has worked with you in multiple classes or advised you on an independent project and who can tell specific stories that exemplify the unique qualities that make you a good choice for your program of interest. For example, if you are applying for a summer research internship, you should ask for letters of recommendation from professors who have seen you do research. If you have not worked with anyone on an independent research project, faculty who have seen you do research projects in class might be a good option instead.