Letters of Rec

June 2, 2011

If you write a letter of recommendation for an undergrad in your class that you barely know you are just diluting the value of such letters. Those who are deserving are having their efforts obscured by this practice.



No Responses Yet to “Letters of Rec”

  1. GMP Says:

    I always try to discourage such students — tell them to go ask someone whom they know better and who knows them better. If they insist that they don’t have enough letter writers who know them well (’cause they didn’t do research with anyone or an internship) and they received an A in my class, I say OK, I will do it, but be aware that the letter cannot be particularly strong because I don’t know you.

    Such letters end up being generic (I have known Stu since Semester 200x, when he took Course 123 with me. This course covers blah blah and is [level, difficutly, etc.]. He received an A and is therefore likely in the top ~20% of undergrads at GMP Uni. He strikes me as smart and interested in going to grad school to pursue research in [whatever the student says he wants to pursue]. However, since our interactions have been limited to class time, I must admit that I do not know him very well and have only a limited ability to judge his potential for grad school.) If a kid really impressed me with something or if I can recall a particular question or interaction, I do put it in there, but often I cannot.

    I don’t think the value of rec letters for deserving students gets diluted — I write really strong, detailed letters for the people I know well (such as undergrads who worked with me on summer research projects). Kids who have worked with me over the summer have all gone to grad school at elite private universities.


  2. DrugMonkey Says:

    If they don’t count anyway, why write the pro forma ones?


  3. qaz Says:

    DM – Why don’t they count? They say that the student did well in a course. It’s not much, but it’s something. (Of course, it can also hurt because committee could recognize that kid didn’t have enough good letter-writers) It seems to me that the key is to be honest in the letter. It communicates what it needs to.

    The assumption has to be that the committee actually reads the letters and doesn’t just count them up.


  4. bsci Says:

    I’ve seen several cases were an application requires 3 letters of rec & a person has 1 great letter, one good letter, & one from a teacher who barely knows them. Some of those people are quite good.
    In my case, I realized sometime in my undergrad junior year that I’d want to make sure at least 3 professors knew me well enough to right a strong letter of rec. For students with less blessed backgrounds than mine or who couldn’t work in multiple research labs for credit (i.e. take several unpaid jobs), finding a professor who is willing to write a pro forma letter lets them get their foot in doors that would otherwise be closed to them. Of course, I doubt anyone gets into a top grad school or earns competitive fellowships without at least one great letter of rec.


  5. Alex Says:

    I write pro-forma letters when the student has few/no other faculty to fall back on. I operate on three assumptions:

    1) I’m not diluting anything because the letter readers can recognize the pro-forma letters and react accordingly.
    2) If the student already has a few strong letters, and just needs one more to fill the quota of letters, then the other letter writers will be the ones who influence the decision-makers positively, and my letter will merely ensure that the procedures were followed properly.
    3) If the student only has pro-forma letters, then the people reading the letters will be unimpressed and will (correctly) not give the student the job/internship/scholarship/grad school slot/fellowship/whatever.


  6. juniorprof Says:

    on the apps I see a very common mistake made by undergrads is limiting their letters of recs to professors. Sure, you need one excellent one from a professor you have established a relationship with, but, letters from postdocs and technicians can be highly persuasive. Undergrads usually spend most of their time in the lab with these scientists and they often have the best information about their lab technical capacities and ability to troubleshoot.


  7. odyssey Says:

    As someone on the receiving end of many letters of the “( have known Stu since Semester 200x, when he took Course 123 with me” ilk, I can tell you they don’t help the students much. We typically also get transcripts, so we can see whether or not they did well. The one, very little, useful piece of information that can help, just a very little, is where they ranked in the class (e.g. they got an A and were third best in the class).

    Do such letters dilute those for the more deserving? No, not really. We can tell the difference between letters for students the faculty really knows, and those that were just students in the class.


  8. drugmonkey Says:

    Agreed jp. I got a letter of support for someone looking to do some work with me a long time ago where the letter writer was the immediate supervising trainee instead of the BigCheez boss. It was clearly written with a good deal of direct knowledge and I didn’t really care the BigBoss hadn’t written it.

    Ironically enough, come to figure out many years later, that letter writer is now a blarghing faculty member we all know quite well….


  9. Isabel Says:

    This is boring. It would be more interesting to discuss why DM intentionally mis-characterized someone else’s research for his own political ends on his recent “teabagger” post. This is exactly the kind of thing he would complain about a “teabagger” doing.

    DM, why is painting another group as “racist” so desperately important to you?

    Ah well, back to your scintillating topic du jour.


  10. Alex Says:

    You know, it’s possible to dislike DM’s take on a topic in a particular post, or even dislike his sins of omission within a given post, without taking it to every other post.

    Hey, DM! Why are you blogging about this topic instead of some other topic where I disagree with you? Huh?


  11. Isabel Says:

    “Disagree” ? What exactly do we disagree about? Whether it’s okay to just make shit up?

    I asked him on the other thread why he was claiming a demographic trend that the authors claim did not exist. Instead of answering me, he called me a racist!


  12. Alex Says:

    Isn’t it strange that blogs have different threads on different topics? What’s next–different academic departments for different subjects?


  13. Isabel Says:

    You are being silly. Obviously I am not getting a response to a serious charge on another thread so I am being intentionally obnoxious at the moment, though I am quickly growing bored with this business-as-usual crap, you can rest assured Alex. DM was not “too busy to respond” between the time I posted my second request for an explanation and me posting here; he had time to put up this fluffy post, but not to respond to me.

    The real question is, why aren’t you on board with me here? How can you justify DM’s actions? Really, it’s all a matter of “opinion” in your eyes? Where the hell is everyone else on these issues? I’m tired of being the only one who objects to this obvious bigotry.


  14. I agree with GMP. In my limited experience, I get a lot of requests like this from people looking for summer programs. My big undergrad class has a lot of ambitious sophomores in it. A few of them have even told me point blank that they know I can’t write them a “real” letter, but they need 3 or 4! from professors, and don’t know enough well after 2 years on campus. I blame ridiculous programs for this nonsense. They should either (1) permit/encourage letters from non-professors or (2) ask for fewer letters, especially from less experienced students.


  15. Karen Says:

    I’m an older MS student, and getting letters of recommendation to get into the program was really difficult! I needed three letters, which needed to be from academics. I cheated a bit because one of my old bosses was an adjunct at a local university. The other two letters came from kindly instructors who were willing to evaluate me mid-semester as I took “open university” classes from them. As to asking my undergraduate faculty… I graduated two decades previously! How on earth would any of them remember me?

    I look at the undergrads in my current commuter school, and wonder how any of them ever establish a relationship with a professor. They work, they have children, they run to class and then off to some other obligation. Perhaps academia really is reserved for those who can afford the time to make connections.


  16. Pinko Punko Says:

    Students at Gigantic State U. many times have one faculty member for whom they have done research and are asked to provide three sometimes for a job. I don’t see any reason to disadvantage them by claiming that even a pro forma class eval has no meaning. This seems shortsighted.


  17. My first stab at LoRs, I did everything wrong – I asked one professor just because he was technically my “mentor” assigned by the university before I even started, and because he was senior and well known. He wasn’t even in a field connected to what I was applying for, and I had almost no contact with him my entire degree. Consequently the letter (which I got to read) was short and pointless.

    Second time around, I asked people I’d actually worked with, including the lab manager. Much better results (I never read the letters though).


  18. Undergraduates are pathetic little pissant idiots. Who cares what happens to them?


  19. CoR Says:

    CPP spronged forth fully formed from the forehead of his mentor. No undergrad degree necessary.


  20. Alex Says:

    I thought that CPP was made from one of DM’s ribs.


  21. “spronged” = win


  22. icee Says:

    When I was a underclassman undergrad at a large public U I had to submit letters (usually 3) for things like scholarship and other program applications on several occasions. I worked in a lab the whole time, but that was only one letter. I eventually TAd, and that was another letter, but sometimes I had no options other than to ask profs who barely knew me to write letters for me based on how well I had done in their classes. I was grad school-bound in classes with 300 whiny premeds and I just tried to keep my head down, get good grades and not bother the profs with my neediness. They all agreed, and I’m sure the letters were vague and generic, but I mostly was successful in my applications, so I don’t think it was held against me. I was a bit miffed at the requirement and wondered what I could have done differently to get to know the profs better, other than be a pain in the ass and bug them when they had more pressing work to do. Now, if I’d have had the option to ask someone other than a prof, that would have been nice. Of course, when you become a senior grad student, it’s not hard to come up with 3 letter writers. I think the application people forget how tough that can be for even very stellar underclassmen. So thanks to all you profs who take the time to do it.


  23. icee Says:

    BTW, I wasn’t implying I was stellar in my last post. I just know that even if a student was the top in a very large class at my undergrad U, the prof still might have NO CLUE who they even are.


  24. katiesci Says:

    Don’t people ever stop by their professor’s offices to ask questions, clarify topics, or just plain shoot the shit? Especially if I knew a professor did research I always tried to stop by at least a couple of times per semester. Those professors ended up giving me tons of helpful info about the grad school process and research in addition to great letters of rec. It wasn’t hard to make connections at all for me… maybe I’m more likely to approach faculty because I’m an older non-traditional student who’s pretty outgoing. Something to think about, I guess.


  25. Katharine Says:

    1: GYOFB Loonabel and stop threadshitting on posts that have nothing to do with the topic you want to talk about, you self-centered nutbag.


    katiesci, to provide one data point, I do stop by my professor’s office to ask questions when the need arises, but I feel it’s overstepping major boundaries to shoot the shit with a professor you only know from class. (Also, I’m hugely introverted and more likely to only approach folks if I need something from them. And a traditional student who’s on the older side, i.e. early twenties. What you describe doing strikes me as, well, making excessive temporal impositions on your professors. But this is my view as an undergrad and someone who, were I dealing with someone in a position like this, would probably view it as ‘I’m busy, for goodness’s sake, get the fuck out of my office unless you’re here for a reason’.)

    CPP, thanks a lot. You were a ‘pathetic little pissant idiot’ once, you do realize this. (I will say part of the reason I have next to no social life is that most of my fellow students make me want to vomit, though.)


  26. Isabel Says:

    Your just a hater Katherine. I wonder how many denizens of the science/academic blogosphere are anti-social malcontents like Katherine? It would explain a lot.

    I wonder why Katherine and Alex are more offended by a commenter commenting on the wrong blog post (after attempting to get a response to a legitimate, scientific concern on the correct blog post) than by the well-known blogger himself making shit up and implying that it is based on a scientific study, like some quack or creationist.

    Or by the blogger, instead of responding to the commenter’s serious concerns and looking in the mirror and checking his privilege when called on it, making unwarranted attacks on the commenter, calling them a racist and deluded based on an opinion they supposedly hold, even though once again the blogger is making it all up whole cloth.

    Katherine and Alex, like all DM’s other readers and commenters, are quite content to sit by quietly while all this occurs, and yet are absolutely outraged that the commenter doesn’t immediately submissively disappear after DM attacks her while ignoring her concerns.

    Thank you for giving me another opportunity to state my case, Katherine. Always appreciated. 😉


  27. Isabel Says:

    “You’re” 😉


  28. Katharine Says:

    LOL, loony thinks she’s funny by appending winky faces to the end of her posts


  29. Katharine Says:

    I’m only ‘anti-social’ ’cause the society in question is made mostly of idiots, whom Isabel loves to coddle when she’s not wearing her white hood.

    I’m quite content to sit by quietly when you’re attacked. Because you’re a dipshit.


  30. DrugMonkey Says:

    than by the well-known blogger himself making shit up and implying that it is based on a scientific study,

    Because, of course, I did no such thing. blaming “others” for the crappy economy and their own personal misfortunes (brought about by their own dumb actions voting for the Republican party which keeps right on screwing them over) is a signature of the TeaBag movement. Hence, any study which identifies a laughably unsupported belief set that is highly consistent with this blaming behavior is rightfully identifying (lowercase) teabaggery.

    You made the inaccurate leap of logic that I was implying that it was a survey of TeaBag Movement individuals and that they were the subpopulation driving the effect of interest. You then proceeded to attack the straw man you had erected. So, even if you do have other folks in your camp of inaccurate leaps of logic, you took care of that little problem. Done dealio.

    Now, what response did you wish me to make, exactly, Isabel?


  31. Isabel Says:

    Did you read the fucking article? They surveyed *white people*, and found *no demographic trends*.

    Yet you used the study to reinforce your view that members of the white underclass in the US are driven first and foremost by racism.

    Hey, I know, let’s blame it on liberals! They’re mostly white. Damn liberals, ruining the country.

    “own personal misfortunes (brought about by their own dumb actions voting for the Republican party which keeps right on screwing them over) ”

    Their misfortunes started because they voted for the Republicans? And because you believe this lie, it is okay to twist the results of scientific studies?


  32. drugmonkey Says:

    members of the white underclass in the US are driven first and foremost by racism.

    When did I say anything about the white underclass? plenty of non-underclass folks of the teabagging and laughably self-pitying persuasion. Those dudes on Faux News make plenty of cashola….

    Their misfortunes started because they voted for the Republicans? And because you believe this lie,

    It isn’t a lie. It is cold hard facts, my friend. You’ve yet to respond to a rather exquisite recitation put on by becca a few threads ago about how the Dems and their values have consistently helped the less-advantaged in the US. I’d like to see a similar list of all the great things the Repubs and their values have done. Without having to reach all the way back to Lincoln and emancipation to find anything worthwhile, I mean.


  33. Isabel Says:

    So there are no demographics huh? No age, location, religion, sex, income, education, political party signal at all?

    “Teabaggers”, or people who watch Fox News, come from all walks of life, and are undetectable demographically.

    Except that they are white, and have plenty of money.


    If a study finds that 11% of the white population surveyed feels a certain way that we don’t agree with, we can blame it on our political enemies. Because obviously it must be their fault. Because we don’t like their voting patterns. Or something.


    Random google bits: ” Median Age of Fox News Viewers is 65 – Average Dittohead Is a 67…..They will take hits on their views because of their older white male demographic.”


  34. Loonabel, you fucken asshole, this thread is about motherfucken letters of recommendation. Your fucken inane off-topic boring drivel is even wearing off on motherfucken DoucheMonkey, whom you’ve now got gibbering himself.


  35. Isabel Says:

    “You’ve yet to respond to a rather exquisite recitation put on by becca a few threads ago about how the Dems and their values have consistently helped the less-advantaged in the US. ”

    Do you mean the recitation of the Obama administration acts of the last two years? I remember that, and I did respond. Although that was more like six months ago. If it was more recent, I missed it.

    My response was something like “wow things have really changed course for the better for the lesser advantaged in the US in the last couple of years while I have become frantically immersed in my dissertation and for the first time in my adult life have somewhat lost touch with current events…”

    Sorry Dude we are talking about events that go back to the fucking 70’s!!!


  36. Yeah, the motherfucken 1870s!!


  37. Isabel Says:

    “this thread is about motherfucken letters of recommendation.”

    CPP, you fucken asshole, I am responding on the thread that motherfucken DoucheMonkey responded to me on, on account of the fact that he is the fucken blog owner and am fucken respecting that fact.


  38. Katharine Says:

    Is there any actual graphical data on how Isabel’s beloved poor whites voted? Not just the poor and not just whites, but poor whites.


  39. Yael Says:

    I totally agree when Juniorprof. When I was applying to graduate school, one of my letters was from a postdoc who supervised me (when I was doing undergraduate research). I noticed that people paid attention to what she said about me, and remarked on it during my interview. I got into several top tier programs, so it’s not a quirk of the place where I eventually matriculated.


  40. Isabel Says:

    katharine you fucken fool no one is talking about poor whites.

    We are talking about the misuse of a study that found a trend amongst *all* whites to make a false statement about a particular group of white people.

    I’m no fan of tea partiers (the name they prefer to be called) or fox news. I don’t favor or especially love any groups, and never claimed to.

    Untie you mind from your behind, girl!


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