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Teaching Time Savers:A Recommendation for Recommendations

By Michael E. Orrison

I admit it ’I enjoy writing recommendation letters for my students. I like learning about their hopes and dreams, where they have been and where they want to go. A recommendation letter is an opportunity to remind myself how much my students can grow while they are in college, and how much I have grown as an instructor, advisor, and mentor.

There was a time when, soon after agreeing to write a recommendation letter, I would invite the student to my office for a 15 to 30 minute chat. I wanted to make sure I had all of the facts right, and that I had enough information to write the best letter possible.

As time went by, and I found myself writing letters for about 25 students a year, the chats became increasingly difficult to schedule. Moreover, I started to find myself asking each student the same questions (e.g., "How would you describe yourself?"). These were not difficult questions for my students to answer, but they all seemed necessary to ask.

In an effort to streamline the letter writing experience, I experimented one year by asking my students to answer the questions via email. I simply sent them a list of questions, and they sent me their responses. My students now had more time to think about their responses, and what I found was that, with hardly any effort on my part, their thoughtful responses were just what I needed to write the letters I wanted to write.

Over time, the list of questions was refined and moved to a web page, currently located at http://www.math.hmc.edu/~orrison/teaching/recs.html, with some additional requests (e.g., for addressed envelopes). Soon, some of my colleagues were either directing their students to the web page, or they were creating their own similar web pages.

In the end, I think my colleagues and I recognized quickly how incredibly useful the student responses were when it came to writing our letters. Personally, I am certain that my recommendation letters are better because of my recommendations web page, and that makes me happy. Knowing that I am saving about 15 minutes per letter is just the icing on the top!

Time spent: about 20 minutes to create your own recommendations web page (or just 1 minute to add a link to my web page).

Time saved: at least 15 minutes per letter.

Teaching Time Savers are articles designed to share easy-to-implement activities for streamlining the day-to-day tasks of faculty members everywhere. If you would like to share your favorite time savers with the readers of FOCUS, then send a separate email description of each activity to Michael Orrison at orrison@hmc.edu. Make sure to include a comment on "time spent" and "time saved" for each activity, and to include pictures and/or figures if at all possible.

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