Considerations for Letters of Recommendation

Hi all!  We are inching close to Thanksgiving and the break!  That means that we are in Letters of Recommendation season!  With that in mind, I wanted to offer some suggestions, both for applications to Graduate School and for REU applications.

First, you might not be applying to either of these right now.  That is totally ok, but it is never too early to begin thinking about the letters that you’ll eventually need for a competitive application.  When you do want a letter in the future, remember that the strongest letters are from professors (or other contacts) who have gotten to know you well as a person.  This includes knowing your goals, how you interact in a learning environment, what makes you excited, and very importantly, what your personality is like.  I say this in all sincerity: this is what makes Belmont such a special place—the professors genuinely care about each individual student, and we want to know you.  Having been other schools where undergraduate students don’t get to interact directly with professors, I can attest to the strength of our letters of recommendation because they are personal and detailed.

With that said, we need you to help us gain these personal details.  Maybe you’re the kind of person who likes to answer questions in class, or maybe you make an effort to reach out to professors on an individual basis.  Those are fantastic ways to help us know you and your passions.  But I also want to say that it is ok to be a bit more reserved in or out the classroom (not everyone is the first to raise their hand).  From a professor’s perspective it is easier for me to write a strong letter if I feel like I know the student well.  So, if you’re on the more reserved side, maybe find more individual times to make an impression.  At Belmont, we want to know you, so don’t be afraid to set up meetings with professors to talk through class material, ask for suggestions about career paths, or share your interests.

This brings me to the time when you’ll actually request a letter.  The first thing you’ll want to consider is whether the people you are planning to serve as a reference can write you a strong letter.  Some professors are very straightforward in telling students whether they feel comfortable writing a strong letter, but others might agree to write a letter even if it might not be very strong.  One thing you might want to ask in your request is whether the professor can write a “supportive letter” on your behalf.  It might be a bit awkward for the professor to reply to an email with any hesitation (and so you wouldn’t get a sense of their perspective).  So, I suggest that you reach out via email to set up a meeting where you tell them that you would like to talk about a possible letter of recommendation.  This way, you’d have a chance to meet with the professor, and the professor will know what the meeting is in reference to (and can then consider what to tell you in advance and not be put on the spot for any possible awkward conversations).  It is important for you to get a sense of how strong of a letter can be provided (without being direct and pushy) so that you know whether that is the right professor to speak on your behalf.

Regardless of whether you anticipate any issues, setting up a meeting is a good idea for at least two more reasons.  First, it gives you a chance to explain why you’re applying to the program of interest.  You might think that the professor knows your career motivations, but if we know you through a class, we are often missing a complete understanding of that part of your professional development.  Being able to describe your aspirations and what you’ve done in preparation for your career will help the letter-writer frame your passion and complement your own personal statement in your application package.  Second, it gives you a chance to describe your professional development activities to the professor.  You should send your CV (resume) to your letter-writer regardless of if you set up a meeting, but setting up a meeting will allow you to describe your experiences in more detail.  This really helps us get a better perspective on your strengths and provide details that aren’t simply visible in the CV that you will also upload in your application.

Because you likely know your letter-writer from class, I think it is important for you to be able to articulate what you have liked about your classes.  Having an example of why you’re passionate about this field would really help the letter-writer provide illustrative details about your interests.  This can be done in your meeting, but it is always great to share your excitement for a topic in the classroom, too.

You might be wondering how to pick the person to write a letter on your behalf.  This can be a tricky question, especially if you feel like either a lot of people know you well or if you haven’t gotten the chance to know your professors well.  I have a few points here.  First, if you haven’t had your advisor in the classroom, think hard about how well they have gotten to know you.  Yes, advisors get to know our students well over the several years that you are at Belmont, but if you’re new to Belmont or if you have had other professors in the classroom, your advisor might not be your best choice to write a letter.  You’ll want to request a letter from someone who can provide details about interactions with you—details that can’t be found in your CV—and an advisor might not have as many strong interactions to describe.

Second, consider whether the strength of your letter might be correlated with the grade you received in a class.  One of the things we are often asked to comment on is an individual’s intellectual ability or potential.  Let me be clear: you do not need to have an A in a class for a professor to advocate for your potential.  Also, sometimes receiving an A doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll receive high praise from a professor.  Rather, what we are considering is your intellectual curiosity and passion for the field, your time-management skills in juggling the demands of several classes and other responsibilities, your desire to seek challenge and handle it maturely if you struggle (not blame the professor), the depth of your thinking (that can be demonstrated by the questions you ask in class and the answers you provide on exams), and your ability to learn from a variety of sources (lectures, reading material, scientific literature, peers in a learning community).  Think hard about in what classes your passions were sparked and whether you feel that your professor got a sense of your excitement for learning and growth.

And finally, regarding whether you should consider someone other than a professor to write a letter of recommendation for you, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer here.  For some people, such as athletes, commentary on working within a group, leadership ability, and time management skills might be an added bonus to an application.  But a letter from a boss at a job wouldn’t be helpful.  This is because the program you’ll be applying for is academic, and letters from within academia are more appropriate to demonstrate your potential for success in the program.  Think about how your collection of letter-writers might complement each other’s perspective on your abilities.

On a final note, please give your reference plenty of notice.  This helps us organize our time to write a strong and thoughtful letter for you.  In fact, if you give late notice, the letter might be brief and more harmful than helpful to your application.  Personally, I have a weekly schedule that I follow to prepare for the week’s classes and other activities.  It can throw a wrench in my week if I need to write multiple letters over a short period of time (and I would probably prioritize preparation for class if forced to make the decision).  That being said, I really prefer to write letters during breaks in the academic year, especially over the summer or winter break, with students letting me know well in advance of the start of the semester (since the last few weeks are usually dedicated to preparing for the semester).  So, it is best to give your references plenty of notice so that they can decide how it works best with their schedule.  And it is to your benefit to make sure that your letter-writer is able to fit it in to their schedule best.  To give you a frame of reference, I usually spend at least an hour on an individual letter in order to make it personal and detailed (and well-written 😉 ).  Then, it takes time to send it to multiple locations if needed (if you apply for multiple programs), possibly another hour or more.  This doesn’t include the time that it takes to chat with you about your experiences and goals.  This can really add up with how many students we have in class, so it is not a negligible ask.  We all sincerely want the best for you, and we are happy to take time to help you in reaching toward these exciting programs!  Be sure to help us in this process as much as possible by providing your CV, asking with plenty of notice, and having a conversation about your goals and accomplishments.

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