Effective and Efficient Student Letters
Many faculty find it helpful to develop a standard procedure and form that lay out your expectations and solicit key pieces of information from students in a streamlined and timely way. This clarity makes things less stressful for you as well as for your students. It also puts a good deal of the effort of developing possible letter content onto the students themselves, while you retain full control and authorship of the letter.
Based on our work with Drexel faculty and national best practices, we’ve developed a sample form that you can use as-is or adapt to suit your needs. At some institutions, faculty will include this form on their department webpage or with a syllabus.
Beyond using this form, it is an excellent idea to make a bit of time to talk with a student in more depth about their background, goals and ambitions before writing your letter. At this meeting, you might also offer your guidance about the program or project the student wants to pursue. Indeed, in a survey of our 2013 applicants, 88 percent found conversations with faculty mentors a “very helpful” part of developing and refining their applications.
Using a version of the Student Information form can make this conversation both more efficient and more productive. For example, since you will have the basic information already, you might be able to probe the student’s motivation and understanding more deeply, or even brainstorm together to try to remember specifics that you might include (but please write the actual letter yourself!).
Deciding to Say No
It’s relatively easy and even pleasurable to write for a stellar student; it’s the less-stellar ones that are more of a challenge. While a moderately supportive letter might be fine for some professional opportunities, the more competitive the position the student seeks, the more damaging a mediocre letter will be. At the level of nationally-competitive awards, a lukewarm letter can significantly hurt a student’s chances. Sometimes it may be in everyone’s interest for you to simply not write the letter.
You might consider saying no when:
- You feel tepid (or worse) about a student.
- You don’t know more about a student than his/her grades.
- You have concerns about the student’s character.
- You genuinely do not have the time or material to craft a robust letter for a student.
- You otherwise think that you are not the best person to write a letter.
If, after talking with the student about their plans, you don’t think you can write a really strong letter of support, it is usually in the student’s best interest if you to find a gentle way to say no. You might say something like: “Perhaps you’d do better with someone who knows you better than I do, and can better speak to your strengths more directly.” Most students will hear you.
You might also help guide the student to more appropriate recommenders, or counsel them how they might better position themselves down the road.