Thursday, December 8, 2011

Letters of recommendation for Grad School

A few weeks ago Bardiac wrote an excellent rant on the absurdity of some questions you need to answer in the recommendation forms from some graduate programs. Currently, I'm in the process of writing letters of recommendations for one particular student, who is applying to 8 different graduate programs in Spanish. I wholeheartedly agree with Bardiac complaints, and I have encountered a few of them myself. And I have others.

What does "Professional Maturity" mean, exactly? The applicant is not "mature" in the profession, that's why ze is applying to grad school. Another one I worry about is "Teaching Potential" (I think the options were outstanding, above average, average, below average, unknown). The student in question had three classes with me, and in two of them ze had to do a presentation and lead a class discussion for 20 minutes after the presentation. And ze was great. But that is the only fact I have to base my opinion on. Considering that the student is applying to a field where most funding comes from Teaching Assistanships to teach language courses, I would be worried to mark that field as "unknown". But seriously, how many professors can honestly answer that question? Another one I encountered was "emotional stability". Huhhh? Ze seems fine to me, but I am not hir friend. There are plenty of cases where students can maintain a facade of "I have everything under control" while in reality they may be a train-wreck.

Finally, I realized (it was my fault, not the student) that one school requires both the online recommendation and snail mail. I can obviously print the letter I wrote for hir and mail it. What worries me is the first part, where they have different categories and you have to rate the student as Exceptional, Above Average, etc...I can't figure out how to retrieve the online form. I know I answer honestly to all of them. But what if there is a difference between how I rated the student on the online application and how I rate hir on the print one. Would it hurt hir chances at that school, because they would consider I am not a reliable reference?

I am sure I'm worrying in vain, but this is the first time as a professor that a student ask me for a letter of recommendation for Grad School in my field, so I worry. We'll see.


  1. I think the teaching potential one I'd base on:

    organization/preparation - a student who's always on top of class assignments, etc.

    ability to give presentations, lead discussions, etc - a student who can do a good job has good potential

    enthusiasm or willingness to do what needs to be done without whining - none of us is enthusiastic every single day, but a student who is enthusiastic and who does work has good teaching potential


  2. Thanks, those are great suggestions for the future!

  3. No wonder academe is so f%#ked up! It starts with the absurdity at this very first gate of entry.

    Good luck to your student, though at this point I'm not sure that's a blessing or a curse!

  4. I really hope ze gets accepted, but ze'll be fine in any circumstance (ze is very adaptable to different situations, and it doesn't hurt that hir parents are actually wealthy).

    Academia can be a circus, but I've seen similar craziness in other places. Seven years ago, my husband was unemployed and broke. He applied for every job you can think of. One of them was as a cashier at a gas station, a job with a future if there is one. He filled out the application, got called for an interview, and besides basic questions, the manager asks him: "So, where do you see yourself in 5 years, and how does this job fit into your plans?". No, he didn't get the job.