Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Can You Write Me a Reference Letter, Preferably a Good One?

You've carefully put together your application package for that internship, fellowship, or dream job, including a compelling statement about your research or teaching goals and a list of all of your publications, awards, grants, and other accomplishments. You think you are well qualified, with achievements that are above average for someone at your career stage. You submit your application and then wait anxiously for that email telling you that you've been invited for an interview or selected for that fellowship or internship.

When it finally comes, the news is not good: "Dear Candidate, we regret to inform you that your application was not successful. There were many excellent candidates this year but....". At the end is a personal note that says, "You might want to rethink your list of references."

Huh? What could that mean? You are not sure, but it sounds as if one of your reference letters was not exactly glowing or perhaps even negative. You think about the three people you asked to write a letter of support for you. They all were people who you thought would write an excellent recommendation. They all agreed to prepare a letter for you. What could have gone wrong and was this what sunk your application?

Reference letters have been on my mind recently since I just participated as a panelist for a student award. I was struck by the huge discrepancy among reference letters, even those written for the same student. Here are some excerpts (modified slightly to hide any identifying information) followed by my assessment:

"I strongly recommend Ms. X for this award. She is hard-working, eager to learn, and quite intuitive. Her academic record is outstanding with a 4.0 grade-point average. She routinely asks penetrating questions in class and shows a more in-depth grasp of the topic than most students. She has developed a unique angle for her thesis research project, which puts it at the cutting edge of the field. Among the 100 or so graduate students I have interacted with as professor, I would rank Ms. X in the top 5%." The letter goes on for several paragraphs to extol the many virtues of this student, providing detailed examples and heart-felt opinions. My opinion: there is no doubt in my mind that this student is held in high esteem by her professor and deserves serious consideration.

"I wish to recommend Ms. X for this award. She is a student in our department and has taken a couple of classes with me. I understand that her advisor is also writing a letter for her. She is conducting thesis research in an area related to mine, which is ...." This letter then goes on to describe the author's area of research, rather than the student's. This professor states no opinion about her abilities or skills or qualifications for this particular award. The letter ends with, "If you need any more information, please don't hesitate to contact me." My opinion: this person has no idea how to write a letter of reference and/or did not want to (or have time to) write a positive, substantive letter for this student (but agreed to write one anyway). The student made a serious mistake asking this professor for a letter.

"I am writing this reference at the request of Mr. Y who is applying for this award. I have been acquainted with this student for a short time. He is about to complete his second semester in our department and I believe he has just initiated his field research. Based on his undergraduate record and the accomplishments he lists in his CV, I can recommend him to receive this award. Feel free to contact me for further information." My opinion: this person knows next to nothing about this student and should not have been asked to write a letter.

"I am writing to offer my enthusiastic support for Mr. Z's application for this award. He has made excellent progress on his thesis research and is excelling in all his coursework. He has all the personal qualities of the most successful graduate student, and I expect him to make important contributions to our understanding of [research topic]. Mr. Z is a bright, motivated, and energetic young scientist that I am pleased to have in my lab. He is a worthy candidate for this award, and I strongly encourage you to consider him. I would be happy to provide additional details about Mr Z's qualities should you need more information. I unreservedly recommend Mr. Z to you for this award." The letter goes into great detail about the student's research and his role in its design and novel ideas for experiments. My opinion: this is a student whose professor has no reservations about recommending him for the award and deserves serious consideration.

The above examples should give you some idea of how varied real reference letters can be. In no case was there a letter that stated anything negative or described any perceived weaknesses. Yet it was easy to categorize letters as outstanding, good, fair, and poor. At the one extreme were the letters that contained glowing, but detailed, comments and that stated flat-out their unreserved recommendation of the student. At the other extreme were the shortest letters that contained no positive comments or even a single opinion about the student.

Some people were clearly outstanding writers of reference letters and understood the importance of providing detailed information and personal opinions about a candidate. Perhaps ten percent of the letters fell into a category I would call "glowing". In several cases, we got letters like number 3 above and even a couple that were from the student's major advisor, who had had them in their lab for five or six years. Yikes. In those instances, it was sometimes clear that the advisor did not hold the student in high regard but still agreed to write a letter. In one case, the letter from the (very busy, very famous) advisor was three sentences long and basically said "I recommend this person for this award". In other cases, it seemed that the letter-writer had no idea that their letter, which lacked any observations or opinions, positive or otherwise, would be perceived as a bad reference.

In the cases where the student got a glowing letter from one person and a poor letter from someone else (like Ms. X above), it was possible that the second letter-writer had some beef with either the student or the advisor. Even so, we could not discount it because at a minimum it showed that the student had not done their homework in selecting people to write a letter for them. Also, their overall rating would suffer in comparison with another student whose letters were all outstanding.

So what can you do, if anything, to ensure that your reference letters are all good ones? I'll explore that in upcoming posts.

Image credit: modified photo from


Kirk Mantay said...

Very important topic! Although, if you consider that a poor reference letter, you should see some of the doozies I've constructed over the years (after telling the student to PLEASE seek someone else, to no avail). I include statements like, "Ms. Z is a very decisive person and is not easily moved from her point of view, which can sometimes be a strength, and other times, a weakness." And that's usually how it STARTS!...

Penny said...

I've seen quite a few horrible letters that actually came with the best of intentions, or so it sounded when checking back with the authors. It's not easy! I recommend a tool like You can pick from several areas and just choose the phrases that you feel comfortable with. Of course you still need to make adjustments, but if you really want to write a good letter, it gives you valuable guidance!

DrDoyenne said...

Penny & Kirk,

Thanks for your comments. I think some online tools can help first-time writers with ideas of what to include in a reference letter and how to structure it. However, it is important to include your unique impressions of the person and give some specific examples, rather than use a form letter and just substitute another person's name.

Although it's obvious (to us) that you should not use a form letter without adding specifics, the same people who write terrible letters will be tempted to take a shortcut. If someone really doesn't have time to write a good letter, it's better to decline than use what is obviously a form letter.