Tips for Writing Letters for Applicants to Grad Programs


The recent spate of posts on letters of recommendation (students writing for profs, things best left out of the letters, and being asked to write your own letter) prompted a reader to send in another query about them—one we arguably ought to have started the week with:

Many of us teach philosophy at an institution without a graduate program.  So while we write letters of recommendation for our own students, we rarely see a sampling of what such letters look like, or should look like.  It would be good to hear from people on admissions committees what they look for in a letter, what kinds of information should be included and how it should be presented, how long a letter should be, etc.  

So, readers, what makes for a good letter of recommendation for an applicant to a graduate program in philosophy?

Malling-Hansen Writing Ball

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Henri Perron
Henri Perron
5 years ago

Considering that graduate school is structured as an intellectual community, I think it’s worth mentioning that a candidate is philosophically mature in the communal sense. Simply put, are they good classmates? Not just do they contribute, but do they listen to others? Do they make concessions in arguments when they need to, or is s/he stubborn and the type to just raise their voice? Nobody wants overzealous ego cases, and I think it’s important to emphasize good classroom conduct on the candidate’s part.

Yeah other aspects are important as well, but I think this type of maturity is underrated. Having a graduate student community that is philosophically mature, kind, and cooperative is, in my humble opinion, essential to having a quality graduate program.Report

Thomas
Thomas
Reply to  Henri Perron
5 years ago

That sounds very sensible.Report

Kristina
Kristina
5 years ago

It would be really helpful if people might say what they would want to know about a candidate who is coming from a not very well known or not very selective university. I am often tempted to write about various hardships my students have faced in life, as a way of “explaining away” why they went to this particular university and not a more prestigious one. But I am not sure this is helpful. Would it be better to focus on my student’s particular accomplishments? To write in detail about good papers they have written? Should I write anything about myself? (I am early career, people don’t know me, maybe they need a reason to take my opinion seriously?)
Also thank you Henri Perron for that helpful suggestion, I had not thought of that.Report

postdoc
postdoc
5 years ago

Here’s a question: How long should letters be? 2 Pages? 3? 4?Report

grad student
grad student
5 years ago

I’ve heard that a detailed discussion of the student’s writing sample is particularly helpful.Report