So you want a Letter of Recommendation?

So I am generally happy to “collaborate” on writing letters of recommendation for students (and I purposefully use the word collaborate as you will soon see.)

In order to put yourself in the best position I generally ask students to write their own letter of recommendation – in other words, what they hope I would write about them. This is not some psychological ploy for me to find out what you think about yourself, but rather there are things you know about yourself that I might not that you might be better able to express. 

For instance, back in the day I would ask students for their CV and base a letter on what is contained in there. But usually when you are applying for something you include your CV anyway so it just became an exercise of copying redundant information. But let’s say that you worked on a research project – an independent study project or something like that. Rather than me saying “John worked in Dr. Smith’s lab and completed a research project” which is all I can get from your CV, I’d rather you write, yourself, “John worked on a project concerning estimation on line lengths in Dr. Smih’s lab. John helped design the study, wrote the computer program for running the experiment using E-Prime software, recruited participants on campus, ran the 100 participants in the psych lab, and analyzed the data using Jamovi software, and he found that right handed participants performed differently than left handed participants in their ability to estimate the length of lines (right handers were less accurate than left handers by a factor of 3).” 

(Of course this is not a real study just something I am making up right now.) But you get my point. YOU, the student requesting the letter, know your own work and life better than I do. And this doesn’t just apply to working in a lab. Perhaps you worked for a summer as a life guard at the Jersey shore, or rescued cats at a local shelter. You have more of those details than I do from reading your CV. 

So what I ask is that you draft a letter that you want me to send to whoever (grad programs, employers, etc) where you focused on what you have done. Then I will add the evaluative part (“John is a talented young scholar who shows great promise in the ability to carry out experiments and analyze data.”) But you can also write a bit of that evaluative part that you might want me to emphasize. Maybe you really want this one university to know that you are particularly talented at statistics. Put that in the letter. I mean if I disagree I will delete it (and tell you so) but almost always I agree with the assessments that students have of themselves. 

Why do I do it this way? Because over the years I have found that in collaborating on letters of recommendation rather than writing letters of recommendation students have had more success. 

One final note. A student once interpreted this note as “Professor Duffy is so lazy that he makes us write our own letters of recommendation.” That’s not it. I give you the chance to express what YOU wish I would say to prospective schools or employers. I am doing this to help YOU not to get out of writing a paragraph or two. I mean, I’ve submitted letters of recommendations for hundreds of students – I just want you to be able to be placed in the best possible position for the opportunity you are seeking.