Based on my (and my students') success in the last few years, I am continuing a non-standard approach to recommendation letters. Here are my assumptions:

1) Each admissions office has some clerical staff that records whether and when rec letters are received, to ensure that applications are completed on time. These people essentially “check a box” when letters arrive, but they are not the people who read them or make admissions decisions.

2) When the decision-making admissions officers finally cull the list of applicants, many letters are never read because the student is eliminated on other grounds, or the letter makes no difference, because the student would be admitted regardless of the letter’s content. Only in rare cases will the comments in the letter be pivotal to the admission decision. If those rare situations could be identified, working especially hard on those letters would be the best use of my time and effort.

3) The letter writing burden is substantial and grows each year.

I cope with this situation as follows.

1) As a first step, I send a somewhat generic letter to each college. In essence, it starts:


“(Student name) has asked me to provide a recommendation letter, and I am pleased to recommend (him/her) to you (with enthusiasm / highly / strongly etc. as appropriate) because (reasons). If additional specific comments I might have about this student will be critical to the decision to grant or deny admission, please contact me at the e-mail address below and I will provide a thorough detailed response by e-mail within twenty-four hours.”

That section is followed by a thorough, detailed description of my classes and of MV’s competitive academic climate that applies to all my students. Such a letter will typcially satisfy the need to have a complete application on file by any deadline, and will be all that is required in many cases.

2) If I eventually receive a response from a particular college requesting more information (which happens for a few each year), I reply immediately and in great detail, with comments specific to you, as promised in the more generic letter. If I do not receive a response from a particular college, then nothing more is needed for that institution (this is the typical pattern).

I realize that some students may worry that this process might have a negative impact on their applications, if for no other reason than it is different from what other teachers do. If you have that concern, please consider asking another faculty member for your recommendation letter.

If you wish to proceed with letters from me, I will expect you to comply with my other requirements that I've used in the past, so that I will have all the information I need to answer promptly any inquiries from the colleges. Click here if you wish to continue for rec letters from me.