By Anthony Tongen
I have found in my short career that the number of recommendation letters written is roughly proportional to the number of years at a school. So far, at least, I am hoping for more logarithmic behavior soon! While writing letters of recommendation for students is enjoyable, it can be an extremely time consuming aspect of our profession. In fact, the first in this series of teaching time savers was a helpful article by Michael Orrison on this very topic. ("A Recommendation for Recommendations," in the May 2006 issue of FOCUS) In his article, he minimized meeting time with students by making a website where students answer questions to give him insight into their goals, skills, and interests. My suggestion to you also cuts down on individual meeting time with the students, with a slight variation that makes for an interesting project.
Recollect the first letter of recommendation you wrote: How did you go about preparing it? Did you ask a colleague for a template? Did you look online or in books to find examples of recommendation letters? However you pursued your first letter, it was a learning experience in and of itself. Why not offer your students a similar learning experience while saving yourself time?
When a student asks me for a letter of recommendation, I usually respond, "Please write the rough draft of your letter of recommendation for me." My response is usually met with a furrowed brow, but I then proceed to explain that it is a great exercise to help the student analyze whether the position being applied for is a good match. I reassure the students that the actual letter of recommendation that I send will look almost nothing like their rough draft, which seems to put them at ease. The benefits of the recommendation exercise include evaluation of their research and writing ability, an idea of their self-perceived strengths, student accountability, and less of my time spent writing letters of recommendation.
The first advantage of the students¹ writing their own letters of recommendation is that the process gives me a glimpse into their research and writing skills. Most students do not know the first thing about writing a letter of recommendation. Therefore, this assignment makes them utilize resources for information on the topic and their letter is a mini-research assignment. I do not critique the students on their rough draft; however, if it is good, I will occasionally paste a few lines of their rough draft into my letter. Also, a writing sample from the student, which I may not have had in certain math courses, allows me to quickly evaluate the student¹s writing abilities.
Another positive aspect of students writing the rough draft of the recommendation is the ability to see what they view as their strengths. While students have numerous strengths, we may know only a small subset of these capabilities, due to limited interaction with them. Their letters will include their self-perceived strengths, thereby decreasing the time I spend evaluating the applicants¹ talents.
One of my favorite benefits of this assignment is the student accountability. For instance, if students tell me that they need me to write a letter and send it in the next two days, they also have to work quickly. If it is really close to the deadline, they may choose not to have me write the letter, thereby decreasing the length of my 'to-do yesterday' list. On the other hand, if the student writes a poor rough draft, it will impact my recommendation.
I have found this exercise to be extremely beneficial in teaching me a lot about my students, and at the same time, it saves me many hours per year. You may be wondering what I do with the rough drafts. I retain all of the applicants' letters and use them as a barometer for the students' writing and research abilities. I do not give the students any feedback on their rough drafts; I use it as an informative exercise. I would like to thank my postdoctoral advisor, Michael Tabor, who introduced me to this idea when I asked him to recommend me, although I was not as thankful at the time!
Time spent: 1 minute to ask the student for a rough draft.
Time saved: lower bound of 10 minutes per letter.
Anthony Tongen is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics at James Madison University