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As a college professor, I am often asked for letters of recommendation by my CS majors. I have templates, for whether the student is applying for grad school, for an internship, for a scholarship, etc. Each of my letters ends up being 1.5-2 pages. When I read letters, they are often much shorter, sometimes only a paragraph. I have no experience with CS jobs outside academia, and I'm starting to worry the letters I'm writing are too long (though I do have a good track record of students getting what they applied for). First question (with an eye towards CS internships or jobs especially):

(1) How long are your letters of recommendation?

Another question is scalability. Each letter I write takes me about 1 hour, and the original templates took longer (probably 3-4 hours each). Every year, more and more students are asking me for letters, so I wonder if I should find a way to do it faster. Hence my 2nd question:

(2) How long does it take you to write a letter of recommendation?

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  • $\begingroup$ Also, it's my first question here, and I didn't know what tags were popular. Feel free to retag. I think I just created a new one called "advising" but I also think there would be value to such a tag. Advising is an important part of the job for college professors, and I'm sure HS teachers also do a fair bit of it. $\endgroup$ – David White Jul 8 '17 at 15:36
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    $\begingroup$ It might also be relevant to look around Academia Stack Exchange for non-subject specific answers; in particular, How long should letters of recommendation for students be? I would imagine this question is on-topic here too, though. $\endgroup$ – Aurora0001 Jul 8 '17 at 15:48
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    $\begingroup$ I'll second looking at Academia rather than here. They are focused on that sort of thing. Unless you think that there is a special CS aspect. I can't think of one myself. $\endgroup$ – Buffy Jul 8 '17 at 16:35
  • $\begingroup$ Also, you might like to visit the site chatroom if you want to discuss your question over there and help you figure out whether it'd be better to ask on Academia or here. $\endgroup$ – Aurora0001 Jul 8 '17 at 17:13
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I write a paragraph saying who I am, and where and how long I have taught. This is standard for all letters.

I write a brief second paragraph stating how long and in what capacities I have known the student.

I then answer these four questions from an old Columbia form.

A. Please tell us about the candidate's intellectual qualities and academic work. We are interested in the nature of his or her motivation for scholarship, breadth, and depth of intellectual interest, originality, and capacity for growth. Cite specific examples where appropriate.

B. What are your impressions of the candidate's character and maturity? How do fellow students, teachers and you regard him as a person compared with contemporaries? Does the candidate show open--mindedness toward opinions, values, and backgrounds different from his own? Does he have any special strengths, weaknesses or problems of which we should be aware? We would welcome any additional comments you think might be helpful to us.

C. What has been the candidate's most valuable contribution to your class?

D. Do you have any reason to doubt this student's integrity?

Lastly, I have a closing paragraph that looks like this:

Thank you for taking the time to read this letter. If you have questions, please send me e-mail at XXXX@gmail.com; this account is entirely separate from the school and you may communicate in complete confidence. You may also call me at home in the evening at 919-XXX-XXXX.

My work phone and address appear in the head of the letter.

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  • $\begingroup$ Thanks, that's very helpful. Any distinction between your process for letters for grad school vs. industry vs. students seeking scholarships? $\endgroup$ – David White Jul 8 '17 at 19:27
  • $\begingroup$ I am writing for a magnet HS (NCSSM). I think a similar letter would work well for grad school or for an employer. Generally, if I communicate with an employer, it's on the phone. $\endgroup$ – ncmathsadist Jul 8 '17 at 20:00
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I spend up to many hours on each student. (Subsequent letters for the same student require only minor modification.) Mine range from a few paragraphs for students I don't know well to 2 pages for a student who has greatly impressed me and is being considered for something very important. (This is not too onerous, since I teach at a small liberal arts college.)

If a student is applying for a job (or scholarship) at a company that has employed our graduates, I will explicitly compare the candidate to those graduates. In the programming project course, I ask students to do peer evaluations, and I quote these in letters of recommendation.

As someone who reads letters of recommendation (for graduate admission), I like letters that contain details, such as "2nd highest score in a class of 40" or "strongest major in 2 years" or "created a website for the computer club using X, Y, and Z".

Something that eases writing letters of recommendation is having a student bring in their resume, transcript, and any other information that will help me write a strong letter. If a student's grades are not good, I ask if there were any extenuating factors and what I can say about them. For example, I might say that a student's grades were low one semester because of health problems (or personal problems) that have since been dealt with. I believe mitigating circumstances sound better when coming from a recommender than from the student.

Some things to keep in mind when writing a letter of recommendation (that nobody warned me about):

  • In the United States, FERPA bars college/university officials (including faculty) from sharing information about students' enrollment and grades without their consent. Since realizing that, I've explicitly asked students if I can share this information. (I really should get consent in writing.)

  • If a student uses non-traditional pronouns at school, ask what pronouns to use in letters of recommendation. Some students are only partly out. Ditto for whether students are parents, older than traditional age, etc. Some students are happy for that information to be shared (especially as part of a narrative about their academic career), some aren't. Of course, their preferences should be respected.

  • Watch out for gender bias (or other types of bias) in letters of recommendation. For example, don't say that a female student is "a lovely person" (something I've been tempted to say) if you wouldn't say that about a male student who has the same behavior. Women are just as likely as men to display gender bias. Another common (well-intentioned) faux pas is describing people of color as "articulate", something that has become a cliché. (Any student can be described as "an exceptional speaker".) Make sure you hold all students to the same standards and discuss the same attributes (not focusing more on women's personalities than men's, or vice versa). See this memo from Prof. Anita Jones to CS faculty at University of Virginia.

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  • $\begingroup$ Hmm, I'm not sure if I agree with this. When I was finishing my PhD, one of the professors I'd asked for a letter asked me to write something to help him and I really had no idea where to start (knowing nothing about letters). I'm not convinced my students would either. Also, it seems like a lot of work to ask all of my students to do this, even if only 1 per class will ever ask me for a letter. Plus, if I do it at the start of term, how could they answer the questions you pose? $\endgroup$ – David White Jul 8 '17 at 19:31
  • $\begingroup$ Not trying to be disagreeable, just don't see how to implement this, from the POV of making letter writing easier. From the POV of improving their performance in my class, this does seem like a good idea. $\endgroup$ – David White Jul 8 '17 at 19:31
  • $\begingroup$ @DavidWhite I was unclear. I do not really suggest that students draft their own letters of recommendation. $\endgroup$ – Ellen Spertus Jul 8 '17 at 20:34
  • $\begingroup$ @DavidWhite You're right. It doesn't really make letter writing easier. I was answering the question I'd wished someone asked, not the one that was asked. I'll delete the irrelevant part. $\endgroup$ – Ellen Spertus Jul 8 '17 at 20:36
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I keep my letters of recommendation short (half page); HR (human resources) are only interested in validation. The second interview -- typically in front of the hiring manager-- will go into greater depth. My signature reflect my credentials; my composition reflects my education. Employers aren't interested in me; they are interested in my proposed candidate.

How Long to write? I collaborate with my students. I provide them a rough draft template, and request their input on other facts they wish to reveal. Unfortunately, 90% accept my rough draft as final copy.

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  • $\begingroup$ Always glad to have a new teacher here! Welcome to Computer Science Educators. I hope we hear more from you in the future! $\endgroup$ – Ben I. Jul 9 '17 at 17:56

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