NSM Faculty/Staff Newsletter

From the Office of the Dean

Letters of Recommendation: Not Necessarily a Grueling Task (Guest Article)

Letters of Recommendation. Is there anything else that faculty loathe to write more than a Letter of Recommendation?

It’s difficult enough when it’s someone that you know and truly want to support, but when random students start asking that dreaded question, we have to have our excuses ready – “I don’t really know you,” “You never came to visit me in my office,” “I’m too busy this time of year,” or “I’m already writing too many letters.”

The truth is, though, that writing an academic letter of recommendation doesn’t have to be a grueling task if you:

  • Understand it’s purpose, and
  • Know how to construct one that sells the characteristics that you have already assessed without having to sit down and meet with every candidate that comes knocking at your office door.

Purpose: Address the Academic Bona Fides of the Candidate

The purpose of an academic letter of recommendation is much different than the broader candidate assessment that we would write for a graduate student, a post-doc, or even a colleague. The undergraduate seeking your letter is seeking a narrowly focused letter that speaks directly to the relationship that you shared, generally speaking, an academic relationship.

Keep in mind, what is being discussed here is not that student who has served two years doing research with you, but rather the student who successfully matriculated through one or two of your courses. The letters they seek (and the letters that the admissions committees are expecting to receive) are letters that discuss their academic bona fides.

It isn’t about your own academic credentials, or what you can glean from a quick perusal through a candidate’s CV, or even what interesting bits you can extract from a personal statement or a 15-minute interview.

Our job in the academic letter of recommendation is to report to the recipient what kind of academic quality they can expect from the candidate you are writing about.

Focus: What Has the Student Learned?

While a transcript lists courses, grades and GPA, it doesn’t tell you what a student has learned, and it’s on this that your letter should focus. The scope of a letter of recommendation should place your course in the broader context of that student’s academic career and their preparation for their professional career.

We don’t merely teach calculus, genetics, physics or organic chemistry… or rather, I hope that’s not just what we teach. There are broader goals outside of our course learning objectives that we are attempting to accomplish.

We might be teaching students to communicate (written or otherwise), critical thinking skills, logical analysis, or even basic principles of teamwork and leadership. Each assignment we create possesses a broader objective through the medium of the subject matter that we use in the classroom.

It’s not just tests, quizzes and points. If we understand that our mission is greater than the syllabus, it should also cause us to pause and think deeper about the what, the how and the why of the things we teach, because it also explains the grades that we assign at the end of the semester.

That “A” or “C+” that a student earned has much more assigned to it than this student excelled or that student was slightly better than average. A student who earns an “A” in my class, for example, is much more than the top 10% of physiology students I have taught. Instead an “A” student is a student who can think critically, has learned how to communicate, can work well with teams, has learned to be self-aware, and learned to give and receive criticism exhibiting a degree of emotional intelligence ahead of their peers. Moreover, they can take general physiological principles and concepts and apply them specifically.

In short, I don’t need sit down in a face to face, or read their CV, or even read a personal statement to get to know my student, because I already know everything I need to know about them based on how I’ve designed my course.

Creating a Strongly Supportive, but Generic, Template

With this in mind, it becomes quite simple to create a strongly supportive, but generic, template for your academic letter of recommendation.

Your filter becomes your high standards of academic excellence (I recommend A- and A students only) in your own course rather than a lengthy packet that you would rather not read. A student earning an “A” in your course has these n characteristics which “translate into success” in the applicant’s field of interest.

You might argue that all your letters would look the same, and I wouldn’t disagree with you, but having served as a member and Chair of the Health Professions Advising Committee for a combined six years, I can say with confidence that in a sea of letters of recommendation, it is not noticed. (TMDSAS, the Texas Medical and Dental School application service, receives over 6,000 applications each year with a minimum of three letters per student. After the first thousand, everything starts blending.)

Moreover, wouldn’t you expect your best and brightest students to possess the same characteristics?

As academicians, it is our collegial duty to not only prepare our students for their future careers, but also to help propel our qualified students to the next level. It is an underappreciated service that we do when we write strong letters for our qualified students, but it is also a necessary one that allows us to not only highlight our best students, but to highlight the exceptional qualities that we instill through our coursework.

– Chad Wayne, Instructional Professor, Department of Biology & Biochemistry, and Chair, Health Professions Advising Committee