Letter of reference writers

Apr 11 2011 Published by under Careers

I run a summer research program that brings in undergrads to do ten weeks of research in our department. This can be a lot of work, particularly at this time of year when we have to sort through applications, make offers, organize travel and accommodations etc. etc. But generally the reward of watching a bunch of kids figure out what research is about makes it worthwhile.

This is also a lot of work for the faculty writing letters of reference for the applicants. We ask for two with each application. Many of them read the same - "Johnny is in my mega-sized class and did quite well (top 27.5163%), yadda, yadda, yadda." Others provide real insight and are very useful for identifying potential participants (we don't go solely by GPA). So from my perspective it's worth getting these letters. But...

I've been running this program for five years now and every year I'm utterly gobsmacked by the number of letters we get for undergrads who end up not applying. That is, we get the letters of reference, but no accompanying application. I'm not talking one or two here - those applications could easily be written off as lost in the mail. We're talking between eight in the first year of the program increasing to fifteen this year (roughly 10% of all applicants each year). What the...?!?!?!?!? If I were writing letters for someone, and found out they didn't apply for positions I had sent letters to, I would be furious. Writing decent letters of reference can be a lot of work. Yes, once the first is written, it's relatively easy to alter it for subsequent positions, but done properly it's still a non-trivial amount of work. And some of the faculty writing these letters are writing them for many students.

Each year I've toyed with the idea of contacting the relevant faculty and pointing out we never received an application. But in the end I don't. Should I? Is it really worth the effort?

12 responses so far

  • KJHaxton says:

    I would be tempted to contact the relevant faculty - I would be completely unimpressed if I wrote a reference letter (or even modified one) for something the student didn't even apply for. Yes, it would reflect very poorly on the student in my opinion, and would probably stop me from writing them future references.

    I generally dislike schemes where it is necessary to send off references unsolicited directly by the organisation doing the recruiting - I accept that it is necessary and probably more efficient for that organisation - but I think application-less references are probably quite a common byeproduct. The other option is to ask the applicants to send the reference in with their application which faculty don't like for other reasons. No pleasing folk!

  • becca says:

    First, in general, flakey students are annoying and I get that.
    However, you can't *assume* flakery here. It's always entirely possible that the student thinks they will have the summer available and then finds out their mom got cancer and they will be needed to drive her to the hospital all summer. Or some other equally valid issue.

    Why don't you contact the *students* and say 'we got this awesome letter, and no application, is there something we should know about that makes applying for this program excessively onerous, and by the way go THANK YOUR WRITER'?

    • odyssey says:

      I'm sure that might explain a handful of them, but ~10% of the applicants have valid excuses? I think not.

      In these cases I don't have contact information for the students - that's on the application forms we don't get. Yes, I could spend time trying to dig up the information, but it's not that easy, particularly in cases where the student's name is a common one.

  • Colin says:

    Do you have solid student contact information at all? Or just "Johnny" in the letter of reference? It would be hard to follow becca's suggestion of contacting the student if you do not know they're info, which would be my assumption if you do not have an application. If you contact the writers, then leave it entirely open-ended and non-assuming that Johnny is a Bad Person.

    "I received your letter of reference for Johnny but I did not receive an application from him. I would contact him directly about it (perhaps it was lost in the mail) but I do not have his contact information. Would you contact Johnny and have him email me?"

    If Johnny has a valid reason then this should get things cleared up, or at least sufficiently attempted to make you feel better.

    • odyssey says:

      I'm not assuming these applicants are necessarily bad people. However, having references send letters for positions you ultimately don't apply for sure as hell doesn't make them look good, does it?

      And Colin, this is not about making me feel better. It's little skin off my nose one way or the other. It's more about the people who have invested time and effort on the part of the applicants.

  • Dr Moose says:

    I would send a form letter to the faculty who wrote orphaned reference letters. They can then each figure out if they want to adjust their philosophy re. providing letters (e.g., ask for proof of application before sending a letter) or deal with it on an individual basis. If someone was wasting my time like that and might be asking me for more letters, I would want to know. (Speaking as someone who has written a million of these letters and who has directed a summer REU program.)

  • It's none of your fucken business why these students ended up not applying, and it is certainly not your fucken business to intervene in the relationship between them and their letter writers.

    • Odyssey says:

      A part of me agrees, which is why I've never done anything about it. On the other hand, this is also a time of year when I find myself spending a lot of time writing letters myself, and that part of me would like to know if someone is wasting my time.

  • Chris says:

    To be honest, it sounds more like curiosity than anything else on your side. Maybe a bit of cynisism too...
    As a student, I would not be surprised if my letter writers would be informed that I hadn't send in an application... as long as the email is phrased neutrally.
    "Thank you for your letter of reference. Unfortunately, we have not recieved an application from StudentX and are thus not able to consider him/her."

  • Goose says:

    We have the same issue with our application pool. It still surprises me how many orphaned letter of recommendation we get. I like the last suggested approach.

  • Brock says:

    I just wrote a whole batch of these letters and I would want to know if my students didn't submit an application. Not so much because I would adjust my willingness to write subsequent letters, but because I would want to follow up with my student. I agree to write letters because I want my students to succeed and if they're not following through with their applications, then I would want to have a talk with them.

  • studyzone says:

    I've read a lot of posts about letters of reference, but never on this slant - very interesting. I have written 30+ letters for 9 students since November (one of the bio major tracks at this school requires students to apply for summer research opportunities, so it's a lot of letters for faculty). About half the programs my students applied to use a web-based application process where they have to complete the bulk of the application before they are given a link to the recommendation form, which I then receive by email. I like those a lot - I know without a doubt that the student has applied, or has at least started the process. For the other applications, I am fairly confident that my students are applying because of what I expect from them if they want me to write a letter - their resumé, transcript, program info (what is the program, and who do I address the letter to), and copy of their personal statement for that program (I want to know what they hope to get out of the program). It is a lot of work for the student, but the 9 students I wrote letters for all put in the time to do it, so (here's my assumption) it wouldn't make sense not to finish the application. [Because of the program requirement, students have to show proof of application, so I have that going for me, too.]