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It’s that time of year again. Coming at the end of the long Fall semester, the holiday season is always a rough time for the college professor. There are term papers to read and grade, exams to write and grade, lab projects to check and grade. Did I mention the grading? But wait, there is one more item on your Christmas to-do-list: writing letters of recommendation for your graduate-school-bound students. Many programs want them in early December, which means it’s only the same week as your final exams!

I shall reflect on this annual academic ritual with some thoughts on what I have experienced and learned over the years. I mean to encourage fellow old timers and provide some guidance for young faculty perhaps facing the task for the first time.

Procrastination. I came up with the idea for this blog as I set out to write a letter for one of our particularly gifted students. So, I got right to work writing this blog because the letter isn’t due until Dec. 10.

Preparation. Sometimes, when I finally do sit down to write my letters, I discover that I really don’t know the student as well as I thought I did. In my department we expect students to provide us with a transcript, CV and Statement of Purpose for their applications, or at least a good draft. If the statement is simply awful, I end up editing the piece before writing the letter. Seriously, one time a student opened with, “I have no idea what I want to do after college, so grad school is an option.”

I look back at grades on all the assignments in courses the student took from me and try to recall a particularly good paper or lab report the student completed as evidence of distinctive scholarship. I review the student’s transcript, which inevitably triggers suppresed insecurity over my own undergraduate transcript. How did I ever get admitted to graduate school? Oh, yeah. Forty-five years of grade inflation.

It’s especially helpful if a student had requested letters for other kinds of applications well before the senior year. Those early letters provide insights and incidents I might have forgotten. Generally, I have no problem speaking to their character, interpersonal skills, and work ethic. Geology professors might have an advantage over other disciplines because we spend a lot of time with our students beyond the classroom on field trips and extended expeditions.

Sometimes it’s best to just-say-no to a request. One time a student from a larger institution where I previously taught asked for a letter. It had been a pretty large class and some six or eight years had passed! I found a paper folder in a well-worn file box with grades from the course he took, but that’s all I had to go on. So, I told him that I just could not provide a fair and ultimately helpful letter. The next year one of my current students ran into that former student at a professional society meeting. I guess the former (jilted) student noticed my current student’s college affiliation on his name tag which triggered his suppressed insecurities or something. “Hey there, you go tell Dr. Moshier that I got into grad school WITHOUT his *@#* recommendation!”

Your letter can make a big difference when transcripts simply don’t reflect a student’s scholarly potential. I recall a painful conversation with a student who habitually involved herself in extremely time-consuming extracurricular activities, resulting in rushed or late assignments in her major courses and only average grades in others. Yet, this was a student with extraordinary potential and keen leadership qualities (probably honed in all those extracurriculars). She was a rock star on summer field expeditions, providing significant contributions by applying her skills with creativity and little supervision. But she had done it again by double-booking an event she organized with an important weekend fieldtrip in my course. She was worried about her immediate grade and I told her I was more concerned about what I would have to write if she ever asked for a letter of recommendation from me! This memory caused me to pull up the letter I eventually did write for her. Longer than most at some 700 words, it included an honest assessment of strengths and weaknesses in her undergraduate record. She is currently thriving professionally after having completed her master’s degree from a strong program.

Percentiles. To this point you may think that I don’t enjoy writing letters of recommendation. I actually do and I want the best for my students (even if they weren’t my best students)! What I really dread is filling out the standard survey that accompanies the letter…

Please assess the applicant in the following areas. In making your assessment, compare this individual to others you have known with similar experience and education.

Intellectual ability
Breadth of general knowledge
Oral expression
Writing ability
Emotional maturity
Potential for research
Potential as a teacher

The least onerous survey asks the recommender to answer using a Likert-like response: outstanding, well above average, average, etc. A truly onerous surveys demands quantification: upper 1 or 2%, upper 10% but not upper 1 or 2%, upper 25% but not upper 10%, upper half but only if candidate was born during an even numbered year.

         Then, the most onerous and ridiculous of all questions:

I rank this student in the top __ % of approximately __ students I have taught in __ years.

I recall my thesis advisor laughing after a graduate-admissions committee meeting. A professor from another university in the state had written letters for five students applying for our program. Each student was in the top 10% of their class. No one had been aware that there were several hundred geology majors at the other university!

This ranking question is just silly because for the 200 or so students in our program over the past 30 years, I would only get to choose three in the top 1-2% and less than twenty in the top 10%. Most years, every student in the senior class would honestly fall in the middle of the ranking. So, I am probably guilty of occasionally exaggerating the rankings like that professor from the state university. Just like I exaggerated the number of geology majors in our program from the past three decades.

Our department occasionally hosts an evening gathering when we talk to our majors about internships, careers, and applying to graduate school. You might consider working into a sophomore level majors course a little chat about these things, so your students can be thinking about what kind of letter of recommendation they would like written about them in their future.

I keep all of my letters in a directory on my hard drive with folders for each student. There are about 160 folders from the past 20 years. There are multiple letters in each folder for internships, entry level jobs, and graduate school applications (to prestigious state universities and the Ivy Leagues). One letter endorsed a candidate for a recent class of NASA astronauts. Re-reading these letters brings back wonderful memories. Memories documented in thoughtfully written letters of recommendation.

Stephen O. Moshier

Dr. Stephen O. Moshier is a Professor of Geology at Wheaton College, where he also chairs the Department of Geology and Environmental Science.


  • Emily Griesinger says:

    Thanks for this humorous reflection on the pesky but very necessary task of writing reference letters for all sorts and conditions of students! I do a lot of the things you do. After 30 years, I have a full boxload of letters organized alphabetically by last names. I am especially glad to know that others require a transcript, cv, and statement of purpose before taking on this task. Sometimes students ask for “a letter for their portfolio,” which means an “open” letter. It takes longer for some reason to write that kind of letter. I recommend that they “waive” their right to see the letter because this lets the application committee know my response is as objective as possible.

    • Stephen O. Moshier says:

      Oh my! I forgot about the “waive right” part of the process. There could have been some red meat there! Thanks for your note, Emily.

  • Brian Howell says:

    I, too, TRULY hate those proprietary forms with “ranking” and “percentages” and all that other nonsense. Just let me write the letter and you read the letter and make your decision. This effort to quantify our students is pointless and unhelpful (IMHO!).

    The only thing I would add to your helpful blog post is to be aware of the ways our word choice can sometimes be subtly discriminatory or sexist. There’ve been some good studies of rec letters that have shown words like “determined,” “leader,” and “assertive” show up more on men’s letters, while “helpful,” “collaborative,” and “team player” show up more in women’s letters. I’ve gone over my own own letters to in the past and seen some of these tendencies, so I make efforts now to stay relatively consistent in how I describe men and women in my letters, given their individual differences of course.

    • Stephen O. Moshier says:

      You make an excellent point. I recall that there is software that can search for such discriminating language and that some campuses (ours, included I think) make it available for these kinds of things.