The system of those seeking letters of recommendation is an excellent, time-honored tradition: someone writing a letter of recommendation in saying that another individual is worthy of such a letter. If you think about it, it’s really quite a wonderful and intimate process.
In a past post, I wrote about how students seeking good letters of recommendation might approach those they hope will write on their behalf. There is, however, another side to this process: that of the letter-writer. This post is where I hope to express some of my sentiments about writing letters of rec.
First, writing a letter of recommendation is work but is also an honor. With some exceptions, when a student asks you to write on his/her behalf, that person believes that your relationship is special enough they they can trust you and, in some regards, puts an aspect of their future in your hands. If you can’t do that, then you should feel free to decline.
Second—because writing the letter is an honor—I believe that writing a rushed, or sub-par letter to a student you know well is a betrayal of that trust. Do not abuse that trust. Think about, draft, proofread, and make that letter accurate. Remember that letter-readers are looking for subtext (i.e., “I strongly recommend…”) but can also distinguish those who are over-embellishing in their letters.
Third, many who are asking you to write are ignorant of this process—show them kindness and grace. If they don’t get you specific information it may be because your student doesn’t know those things of which they should inform you. Prompt, remind, and advise (like you do on so many other things) your students.
Finally, as I read through this post, I notice that the attitude of the letter-writer is what I’ve emphasized. Maybe the better summary I should offer is to put yourself in their shoes. What if you were the student who was most ignorant of how to go about applying for/receiving a reward but was one of the most deserving? How would you want your letter-writer to treat you, lead you, or help you? Start there and let your conscience lead you.