In Tara Westover’s eloquent and heartbreaking memoir, Educated, there’s a brief passage that has shaped the way I talk with students about letters of recommendation. Tara comes from a self-isolating community and family in rural Idaho where she is homeschooled, or perhaps more precisely, unschooled. She studies for the GED and gains admission to Brigham Young University. While on a study abroad program to Cambridge, she distinguishes herself in her studies and a faculty-mentor encourages her to apply for the Gates Cambridge Scholarship to return for a postgraduate degree. Needless to say, Tara is overwhelmed by the task of articulating such a vision of the future, much less presenting herself as a competitive applicant for such a prestigious award. Don’t worry, he tells her. You just apply and leave the rest to me. I am by no means spoiling the memoir to tell you that she wins the Gates Cambridge Scholarship - largely on the basis of this letter of recommendation, we are left to assume.
Here’s what I take away from this passage. It is absolutely not the grandiosity to believe that my letter of recommendation can single-handedly win a prestigious scholarship for my students. Sadly, I have far too much disconfirming evidence to hold that belief. Rather, it’s that an essential task of a letter writer is to see and articulate for the reader potential that an applicant might not be in a position to see in herself. Or, at least, to make the case for her potential future in a way that the applicant herself cannot.
There’s a chart that I like to draw on the glass board in my office at this point in the conversation. It’s a simple line graph with the y-axis labeled “Leadership/Impact” and the x-axis labeled time in 5-year increments. Most prestigious scholarships are looking for applicants who will realistically end up on the top right side of this graph - in other words, who in 20 years will be leaders in their fields doing work of significance. The purpose of the application essays to define the field and the applicant’s vision of this future work. The purpose of the transcript and resume of activities is to provide the data points for the first five years. The purpose of the letters of recommendation is to draw the line - in other words, to make the applicant’s future trajectory tangible, credible, even seemingly inevitable for the reader. We do so by contextualizing the applicant’s accomplishments so far, pulling out the skills, knowledge, and character-traits (all illustrated by specific examples, preferably from first-hand experience) that form the basis of the applicant’s future potential. As letter writers we must also make the case credible by communicating the basis for our confidence in these predictions, such as direct knowledge of the applicant’s future field or by comparison to similar students who have gone on to realize similar potential in significant ways.
I use this story to help applicants select their letter writers, typically in contrast to two other unspoken beliefs about letter writers. The first is that they are “people who like me.” Personally, I know that I’ve overreached in agreeing to write a letter for a student I like when I can’t make a credible case along the lines above. Recognizing this has allowed me to explain my rationale when I say no more compassionately, usually followed by an offer to help them brainstorm a better person to ask. I alway coach students to ask if a potential writer can write a “strong letter” because this leaves open the very reasonable response, “Although I like you and support your application, I don’t think I’m the best person to write a letter for the following reasons…” (typically because I lack first-hand knowledge of the applicant’s activities or future field). The second unspoken belief is that letter writers are “corroborating witnesses,” confirming that students actually did what they say they did in their essays or resumes. If this is all the letter writer is doing, it’s a missed opportunity and unlikely to be an effective letter.
Tara Westover’s example is obviously exceptional. When asking for a letter, applicants will typically be the one to articulate their vision for the future and should ask, “Do you think that you can write a strong letter along these lines based on our interactions?” The applicant needs to supply the writer with all the materials that she’ll need to write a strong letter, including essay drafts, feedback on previous work, or perhaps even a summary of some of the details of their interaction. However, I strongly warn applicants against providing a self-written draft of a letter to be signed. First and foremost, this is a violation of academic integrity that could disqualify a candidate. But it also violates what I think is the essential purpose of a letter, which is to say about the candidate’s future potential what she cannot say about herself.
Ideally, if the letter writer is already an expert in the field, there should be a dialogue about the applicant’s vision for the future. “Does this sound realistic? What advice do you have for making it more concrete? For next steps? etc.” In short, asking for a letter is not simply asking for a favor, but an opportunity for mentorship. I often include reference to these very conversations in my letters as evidence of the applicant’s future potential success through the ability to identify and benefit from mentorship.