Commentary

My Turn: Letters of etiquette

As an English teacher at both the high school and community college level, over the years I have been asked to pen many letters of recommendation for students applying to institutions of higher learning. While most students who approach me manage to satisfy the demands of basic courtesy, some young applicants struggle with the etiquette of this awkward process. As we say goodbye to one graduating class and say hello to a new one, I thought I should take a moment to offer some advice about asking for a letter of recommendation.

  1. Ask me in person, not via text or email or even, as one student did, a scribbled note on my white board. And absolutely do not have your parent ask me. You may laugh, but it happens. If you no longer live in the area, call me and do not simply leave a voicemail with the request. You are asking me for a favor that is not part of my regular duties as a teacher, so make your request in person or as close to it as you can get.
  2. Give me at least one month to complete this task for you. This means you need to plan ahead. If your deadlines span several weeks, say from November to February, collect all of them and give me a month prior to the first deadline. I prefer to take care of recommendations all at once instead of doling them out over the course of three months. And, yes, colleges are typically fine with receiving letters early, but feel free to double-check with the admissions offices to be sure.
  3. Tell me exactly what you need. Traditional letter? Mailed or uploaded? Do you need me to complete an online survey? Be as specific as you can, which may require some soul-searching before meeting me, for you will need to know which institutions require what kind of recommendations. If you know you need a recommendation but are unsure of which schools, go ahead and ask for the recommendation but then follow up quickly with the name of each institution that needs it and a clearly marked deadline for the letter or survey’s submission. My most organized students come to see me bearing a list of schools, the type of submission (hard copy or upload), names of admissions directors (to avoid the dreaded “To whom it may concern”) and deadline dates in an easy-to-read table.
  4. Do not ask for a “general letter for my files.” Many students have approached me for such a letter and I typically decline unless the student is truly exceptional (and in those cases, honestly, I offer the letter instead of being asked for it). Why? What concerns me about the general letter is that I have no control over its distribution; were all students ethical creatures, this would not be a concern, but in a world where students forge jury summonses to get around a community college class’ attendance requirements (yes, they can and they do), then that signed paper can be transformed into something quite different.
  5. Related to No. 4 is this edict: Have me send letters or upload documents directly to the schools themselves. While the intimidatingly sealed and taped envelope with a signature across the back seems like a suitable security measure, it is not. All the schools I have ever dealt with expect letters of recommendation to be uploaded to the Common App (or equivalent), or letters are sent directly to admissions offices.
  6. When you deliver the forms, envelopes or other materials I need to complete the task, give me a brief summary of your achievements and goals as they relate to my class. If a student does not have this ready, I always ask for an email providing this information. In this summary, I ask students to remind me when and what classes they took with me, what their essays were about, what kinds of grades they earned, as well as a brief summary of the program or major they are planning to pursue at the schools to which they are applying. A good letter of recommendation is full of specific details and the more details I know about you, the better. Keep it brief, however. I do not want to pore over a 10-page biography in order to write a one-page letter for you; stick to the highlights.
  7. If you are asking me to mail a letter, supply the envelopes with adequate postage (check the postage, particularly if the form is several pages long; it is neither the school’s nor my responsibility to make up for postage shortfalls) and type the address label. Modern word processors and printers are equipped for this task; in some cases, a simple sheet of adhesive labels run through the printer will solve your envelope woes. For the return address, use the school address and not your home address. If you are uncertain about the return address, then leave it to me to supply the return address; I have no problem with this — just make sure the mailing envelope is neat. While I recognize that snail mail is a dying mode of communication, the envelope should at least look like it was addressed by an adult and not a Labradoodle.
  8. If the school to which you are applying provides the waiver form, waive your right to see the letter once it is submitted. It is a frightening proposition, I know, but I do not write letters for students unless they agree in some way that they will not see the letter I write. If I want a particular student to see what I have written, I will send that student an email containing the text of the letter itself. I sometimes do this during the composition process in order to verify that the information I include is correct. Otherwise, do not make demands about the specific content of your letter; you must leave the task in my hands and trust that I will complete it.
  9. Do not ask to proofread the letter. If I want your input, I will ask you for it. I recently had a student make this request and frankly, it was a slap in the face. “I would like to proofread the letter before you send it,” he typed in an email to me. I struggled with a polite response before simply telling him “No.” I am providing a service for you because I am an educator who by nature is generous with her time, but I am not going to submit my work for your approval.
  10. Gently remind me as the deadline approaches. Other teachers may have a different way of dealing with this, but I actually ask students for emailed reminders during the process if they do not receive an “I mailed/uploaded your letters/completed your survey today” email from me. I do not view emailed reminders as nagging or rude, provided the student is polite about it. A simple “Just checking in on my letters, Mrs. Oliver. Thanks again for helping me with my applications” works.
  11. Once the application process is completed, send me a thank you note of some kind. While some younger teachers may find emails of gratitude acceptable, I am a bit old-fashioned and prefer a handwritten note of appreciation. No matter what form you use, be sure to acknowledge what I did for you in some way.
  12. If you can, once the excitement of graduation is over, connect with me and let me know where you are going so I can convince myself that it was my artfully worded letter that led to your success. Every small spot of joy helps ease the pain of what can be an exhausting line of work.

Noelle Oliver currently teaches English at Folsom Lake College. She can be reached via her website OliverWritingLab.com.

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