04 Nov 2016 15:39 IST

Why recommendation letters are important

Pic credit: Viktoria Kazakova/ Shutterstock

Education leaders should make it a priority to train academics to write good, honest letters

Our colleges and universities are supposed to not only educate our young in their chosen fields but also inculcate something far more important: the pursuit of an honest and ethical career. Indeed, mission statements of Indian colleges are rarely complete without the inclusion of some variation of the word “integrity” prominently featured upfront.

But the sad truth is that in many Indian colleges, honesty as a policy disintegrates when students approach faculty for a recommendation letter. The response can take different forms but the message to students is the same: “I am too busy to write it (or I don’t know you well enough). So please self-write your letter and bring the printed original to me. I’ll be glad to sign it.”

Electronic solution

To combat this problem, universities in Europe, Australia, Canada and the US — some of the biggest consumers of recommendation letters, given that nearly 150,000 Indian students travel abroad each year to pursue higher studies — began rolling out electronic solutions in recent years.

These take advantage of document management technology, and require a student, at the time of applying, to fill out the name and email address of the recommender. The college then sends an email to the concerned person with a secure link, which when opened, takes the recommender directly to the student’s secure file at the university.

He or she is provided the opportunity to rate the student through structured responses or free text or both. The idea is to limit access to the recommenders alone so that the opinions expressed are truly theirs and no one else’s.

But Indian faculty members have found a way around this administrative restriction as well. Professors routinely ask students to send their self-written letters by email, from which the professors copy and paste text directly into the university system, with minor edits.

Beats the purpose

Requiring students to evaluate themselves, and passing on this assessment as one made by an academic, is inherently unethical. More importantly, it defeats the very purpose of a recommendation letter.

A recommendation is supposed to reflect the honest, professional opinions about the student that the author has formed through direct interactions over a sustained period of time. When the letter is genuine, it humanises the student beyond a set of numbers, grades, ranks, marks sheets and certificates. In western countries, an honest referral — even if not all positive — can often make the difference in a candidate’s application for admission to college or a job.

But a recommendation letter self-written by a student and simply signed by a faculty member or department head, fails all these tests. It is not honest; opinions are not original; there were no direct material interactions regarding the candidate’s performance, and the length of interaction was largely limited to the period when the student sought the recommendation letter. Such superficial recommendation letters dilute the value of genuine referrals because readers are unable to distinguish good ones from the bad.

Correcting the epidemic

Universities around the world look to Indian students to fill coveted seats in science, technology, engineering and math. Without Indian students, many graduate and doctoral programmes in the US and Canada would fail for lack of human capital. Indian academic institutions must, therefore, correct the epidemic of self-written assessments by following a few simple steps.

Know the candidate : Indian students are often misled into thinking that the higher the rank of the person writing the recommendation letter, the more valuable it is. When a candidate approaches a professor or head of department for a letter, the college official should first ask if the best person to write the letter is someone else — perhaps an assistant professor or a project guide who knows the candidate better.

Key attributes : According to the Educational Testing Service (ETS), the organisation which conducts international tests for students such as GRE, GMAT and TOEFL, recommenders need to think about their wards across six dimensions: knowledge and creativity; communication skills; teamwork; resilience; planning and organisation; and ethics and integrity. Adopting such a framework will make it easier for writers to remember candidates’ key attributes.

Demonstrate action : Recommendation letters have to demonstrate, not just tell, through clear examples when the candidate showed leadership of thought, planning or execution. These examples must outline significant contributions or accomplishments through action words, such as, “His skills, attitude and hard work in helping us organise our annual industry conference were invaluable. He developed a resource-loaded master project schedule with detailed dates and task dependencies that formed the foundation of our planning effort. As the faculty in charge of event planning, I received numerous compliments from guests afterwards. Significant credit is due to Aditya Sharma for the success of this conference”.

Performance review : A good recommendation letter should also point out how a candidate’s contributions exceeded (or fell below) the performance expectations for others in the peer group. It must also present areas for growth and development. Candidates are not perfect and only a professional who really knows the candidate well can correctly point out areas for improvement.

Recommendation letters serve a vital purpose in business, industry and academia. Our education leaders should make it a priority to train academics to write good, honest letters. As members of the Swachh Bharat initiative know well, changing habits is hard. But success is pleasant for all.

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