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Work Through Your Own Baggage to Write a Good Letter of Recommendation

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Graduate students who teach are sometimes asked by students to write letters of recommendation for admission to graduate school, jobs, and applied experiences like internships. Writing recommendation letters is a task that you will encounter throughout your career - both and out of academia. The first letters you write will be challenging. That's a given and, often, an understatement. During my first few years of teaching, as a graduate student and then new faculty member, I found that writing letters of recommendation was a task that weighed on me.

I now realize that part of the problem was inexperience. Only by writing recommendation letters do you get good at writing recommendation letters. Some grad students and new faculty find writing recommendation letters challenging because they must first work through their own baggage.

Baggage? Yes. Throughout years of undergraduate and graduate study and perhaps a postdoc, students are, obviously, in the role of student. Students look to faculty and others with experience to guide them. Rightfully so, but the constant looking to authority can prevent students and new professionals from finding their own voices. They question themselves. They second guess themselves. They might develop a case of the impostor syndrome and wonder if they are really prepared to be a professional or whether they are fooling everyone.

It's not uncommon to think the following self-defeating thoughts:

  • Who am I to judge whether this student should to graduate school?
  • What do I know?
  • I'm just beginning, no one will care what I have to say.
  • Do I know how to write a letter of recommendation?
  • Am I good enough to make this decision?
  • Will they know I'm good enough?
  • Will they trust my judgment?
  • They're going to laugh at my letter and wonder how I got this teaching position.
Don't let these self-defeating thoughts interfere with your job. You have the capacity to write a letter of recommendation as long as you have experience with the student in question. You may not believe it yet, but you are an expert. Graduate study imparts expertise. By the time you enter the classroom, you are an expert, even if you don't feel like one. Don't question yourself. The admissions committee that reads your letter will read it and base it's validity on its content, not on you. Of course, that means that you need to write a good letter of recommendation. But you knew that anyway.

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