It is that time of the year once again. No, not holiday shopping. Those of us who teach are inundated with numerous requests from current and former students to write letters of recommendation for them at this time of year, as the deadlines for their applications to schools loom large.
Approaching this project always opens up a can of worms for me. I try my best to take into account what the situation is, the honest strengths and weaknesses of the student for whom I am writing, and to highlight some unique trait about that student. Even if I take less than an hour per letter, composing them can take up a whole weekend. You can’t just cut and paste the same text, as letters for different students are often going to the same schools.
So, how do you write a good letter? What is it that we are recommending? And, by writing a letter, what are we reflecting of ourselves? I know some colleagues who sweat over recommendations for hours, and then I know others who put out a cookie cutter form that rarely changes between letters.
There is also the issue of whether we should write letters of recommendations for some students. We all have come across young composers who, while they may have the best of intentions, simply are not ready to enter the level of schools they wish to apply to. Do you say no? Or, do you write an honest assessment, knowing that your letter will not help in any way except to disqualify the candidate? I know of one instructor who would be frank and say to a student that he could not recommend them as of yet, for they needed more studies at the undergraduate level. I also know of one composer who, upon seeing how a top former student started to explore different musical styles from what what he was taught, said to the student that he could not recommend him for anything anymore and hoped that the student would return to his own style (i.e., writing like him).
These letters do not stop once a composer is finished with school. As we all know, most of us still have to approach former teachers and colleagues for their written stamp of approval for numerous grants, job openings, and the like. So, as I write letters for my students, I think of how I also ask my former teachers for the very same assessment as these younger counterparts ask of me. Knowing now what it takes to do this well, I am very mindful to ask for letters to recommend me on a select basis. I spread out the work among many of my mentors, instead of piling the task continually on just a few of them. May we all get through this time and be ready for the coming year, when we do it all again.