Welcome one and all to the second irregular, post-MAPH Maphmatically Yours installment intended to provide a bit of helpful advice regarding those final issues associated with nine-months in Chicago not yet tied neatly into a bow at graduation. Yesterday, I introduced an electronic dossier service popular with University of Chicago profs–and soon every other faculty member on the planet–called Interfolio. As far as I am concerned Interfolio is a distasteful, but necessary evil that was bound to crop up in response to the needs of large educational institutions in this technological age–like previously submerged bodies dislodged by water skiing turbulence.
Clearing up some Misconceptions
I feel it my duty at this point to challenge and overturn some commonly held misconceptions about the process of securing letters of recommendation so as to justify the advice that will follow. First, there is a common but almost entirely unfounded belief that if a professor awards a student high marks in a class that the professor will necessarily be willing to write a strong letter of recommendation. This chestnut fails on two fronts: 1) the evaluation process in grad school is highly compressed so that a “B-” in some programs is the equivalent of failing a course. Thus, the actual level of performance designated by an “A” or an “A-” is actually much broader than the normal scale would dictate and might not necessarily suggest that a student’s work has been judged by a professor to be worthy of a strong letter of recommendation. 2) Faculty don’t ever have to write letters of recommendation. LoR, despite what you might have heard, are not the obligation entailed by a student showing up to class and earning a passing grade. Professors have and will continue to deny students letters of recommendation for a whole host of reasons. Students should not enter into the process of requesting LoR with the sense that they are entitled to them.
Second, some folks are under the impression in the time they spent with a given professor their startling insights, witty bon mots, ground-breaking papers, and overall fashion sense have indelibly branded those student’s identities into the minds of that professor so that for years to come–and in times of deepest depression–that faculty member will return to those memories for solace and comfort. Hopefully, the preceding hyperbolic restatement of the claim has already made my point–but if not, let me state the facts plainly: at a large institution like UChicago nearly everyone is exceptionally gifted, incredibly witty, and produces strikingly original work in their discipline. Therefore–and repeat after me–“You are not a beautiful and unique snowflake. You are the same decaying organic matter as everyone else, and we are all part of the same compost pile.” So, while you might have a special relationship with this prof or that administrator, it probably has little to do with your actual participation in class or academic output and instead rests on a shared appreciation for the band Nine Inch Nails discovered as both of you wore the same concert t-shirt to an extracurricular function or, as Bill would put it is the result of “face time.”
Third, there is a common misconception that the actual content of LoR are less important than the name in the letterhead. Now this misconception is not commonly stated as plainly as I have in the previous sentence, but it is the subtext in some contemporary conversations about LoR and LoR writers. The point to be made for the purpose of this conversation is that a weak letter of recommendation from a Rock Star likely does less good for a candidate than a strong letter from a low-ranking lecturer that no one has ever heard of.
So, in summary: a) Professors have no obligation to write you a strong letter, so make writing a letter as convenient a task as possible, b) You are not nearly as memorable as you think you are, so include samples of your work in your request for a LoR and mention those connections that you did make with the professor or administrator–even if they seem off-topic, and c) The goal is merely to collect strong recommendations, so only solicit letters from people willing to write strong recommendations–even if their names are “up in lights.”
Tomorrow: The One-two Punch: Stage One – Informal requests