Sunday, June 14, 2015

Letters of Recommendation, a Modest Recommendation

This year, even more than years past it seems, I've heard colleagues complain loudly about the letter-of-recommendation season, and these colleagues come from among both the letter-seeking and letter-writing.  A routine expectation has developed that all applicants for scholarships, jobs, and advancement need to accompany their applications with three letters of recommendation (LORs.) Now, there are a few large institutions with job placement offices that have got a system in place for reproducing application portfolios complete with copies of "to whom it may concern" LORs, and in many cases this system works well enough, but most applicants find themselves asking their LORs-writers repeatedly for letters and more LORs-writers dutifully generate those letters, and in many cases, write updated or entirely new letters tailored to the particular job or opportunity. All of this amounts to a lot of time and effort and no small amount of social awkwardness, and when the actual statistics of the crapshoot that these job markets and such are considered, most of this effort, — including LORs that are written in very thoughtful and considerate ways — is simply lost in the mass of materials received.

As someone who is (mostly) out of this business — rarely applying for anything and almost equally rarely being solicited for recommendations — may I be considered a neutral party when I make the following recommendation to persons or institutions taking applications for scholarships or jobs?

Do not require completed LORs for initial applications.  Instead, require that applicants provide a list, with titles and accurate and up-to-date contact information, of three persons qualified to advise on the applicant and her or his work.  Perhaps specify if you'd like to hear about teaching or performance or compositional work or scholarship or collegiality in particular and encourage the applicant to nominate people who could write or speak authoritatively to that particular area.  Do not require applicants to ask these people for LORs themselve, but, after having made a narrow selection from your applicant pool, contact these persons directly.  This is an indication to the recommending party that their opinion has been sought out confidentially and is being taken seriously in a process with some chance of success.  This is respectful of both your applicants and your recommendors, at the very least in terms of their time, and it is also more likely to yield recommendations that are less generic and more responsive to the particulars of your situation and search.


Charles Shere said...

Excellent suggestion.
I seem to recall that no Guggenheim applicant providing a LOR written by John Cage ever received a grant. He could have saved a bit of time …

Sara Loren said...

Your website is for sure worth bookmarking.

Bethany Kapell