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A Case Study of Letters of Recommendation at Drexel

Recognizing that letters of recommendation are critical and that there is not broadly-shared awareness of what makes a strong letter or about how to work most effectively and ethically with students, we held a series of conversations in 2013 with faculty at nine of Drexel’s schools and colleges. We asked faculty to complete a brief survey on their letter-writing practices and followed that up with small group discussion of strategies and challenges involved in writing effective recommendations. Our overall findings are:

  • Most Drexel faculty feel positively about writing letters of recommendation; they are considered an integral part of the job and important for student success post-graduation.
  • Some faculty considered letter writing stressful, especially when pressed for time or when they didn’t feel strongly about the student, and some struggled with the solitary nature of the practice.
  • Writing effective letters of recommendation efficiently is a particular challenge for junior faculty, who have not yet seen many letters written by others, as well as for international faculty, who may hold different understandings of what a recommendation letter should look like. 
  • There is, generally, very little professional socialization or peer discussion around letters of recommendation. Faculty get ‘good at it’ by experience, especially when they are able to serve as reviewers on selection committees (where they can read a wide variety of letters and see for themselves what makes one more effective than another).
  • The number of student reference letters faculty write per year and the time spent writing them vary tremendously:

Effort Expended on Letters


# of students written for per year Hours per first letter for a student How often say "No" # of Respondents
Drexel average 

 9.22  1.79 0.98
 224
Range of college averages  [7.24 - 16.73]
 [1.15 - 2.61]
 [0.39 - 1.71]
 [5-41]
Range of individual responses  [0-150 letters]
 [10 mins-20 hours]
 [Never to >5 times/year]
 **

Faculty use a wide variety of strategies when they need information to write a letter of recommendation:

Strategies Drexel
Ask for Resume/CV
85
Face-to-Face Meeting
55
Ask Student to Identify Points to Emphasize
43
Ask for a Personal Statement
41
Ask for a Transcript
32
Use a Template
29
Ask for Project Proposal
24
Ask Specific Questions to be Answered in Writing 
17
Ask for Past Papers/Projects
14
Talk to Colleagues
13
Ask Students to Write/Draft Letter
12
Ask Junior Staff to Write/Draft Letter
3

If you’re interested in seeing more of this data, please contact us. We’re happy to share our findings with our Drexel colleagues.

Research Team:

  • Rona Buchalter, PhD (Pennoni Honors College, Fellowships Office)
  • Jamie Callahan, PhD (Education)
  • Cindy Schaarschmidt, MA (Pennoni Honors College, Fellowships Office)
  • Yoto Yotov, PhD (Economics)