Friday, April 30, 2010

A Letter of Recommendation

I recently spoke with a colleague about writing letters of recommendation that do not sound like generic form letters.  As an example, here is the a letter I wrote not too long ago.  The student's name and term have been changed.

Lane Community College
Mathematics Department
4000 East 30th Avenue
Eugene OR 97405

To whom it may concern:

I am writing to praise Cornelius Crabblefoot's studiousness during Math 20 during the Fall 2010 term. Not only did he earn an A in the class, but he did so in a remarkably mature manner.

The class involves a large number of topics of moderate difficulty. Earning an A is difficult (14% of my students did that term) because there are so many skills of which to keep track. Few students successfully monitor what they have mastered versus which skills need more practice.

Furthermore, attendance is optional. This policy, set by the department, is to provide flexibility to those few students who take the class as barely-needed review. More often the policy ensnares students to whom the material is not mere review, and who underestimate the importance of attendance.

Cornelius approached the class in an careful and mature manner. He began the term with perfect attendance and then after a few weeks began to skip some classes while earning an A. Moreover, he participated fully in the group project, turned in homework on time, and kept aware of exam days. In other words, he was respectful of the class and his classmates while budgeting his time wisely in tricky circumstances.

Cornelius earned an A overall but did not score an A on every exam. This makes his achievement more impressive by showing that the math skills were not breezy review for him: he did need effort both to learn the skills and to monitor which he had mastered. Not half a percent of my students can do this successfully. Thus in my one class Cornelius demonstrated the ability to successfully manage multiple demanding classes.

I have only one small complaint: Cornelius did not speak with me about an occasion when he chose chivalry over integrity. During one midterm, when I was out of the room, he whispered some hints to a damsel in distress beside him. It was not enough to aid her grade; I assume Cornelius was helping to avert tears, not alter assessment. Yet even if no harm was done, I would have appreciated if he mentioned it some days or weeks after the incident.Cornelius is a young man of maturity and ability who could aim beyond the kind and good to reach what is whole and best.


David L. Van Slyke

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