categories: Cocktail Hour
It’s always reference-letter season, but this season is one of the big ones for a writer and former professor of writing like me: MFA program application deadlines start in December and concatenate all the way along through February, probably some beyond that. Guggenheim letters are due, and most assistant professor refs, too, though new jobs keep getting posted, and new requests keep coming in. All sorts of internal fellowships at various colleges require letters, as do tenure and promotion cases, which are the hardest letters of all: letters, letters, letters.
The best requests come from people I admire, students and colleagues I’ve loved, people who launch the email with apologies: I know you’re busy. I know you have a lot of great candidates to write for. I know this is a pain in the ass. But honestly, it’s not. It’s never. Lots of profs and colleagues and even friends have written for me over the years, often multiple times, and really, writing for the next wave is the only way to pay my benefactors back.
The most troublesome requests come from marginal cases, smart kids who did very well in college and well in my creative writing classes, but who simply can’t write and don’t belong in an MFA program. I’ll ask them in an email exchange why they want an MFA, try to get them thinking realistically. One type says, “I’m applying to Columbia, because that’s where you went.” Or they say they’re going to Columbia, Iowa, whichever top program, as if only you stand in their way. Another type says, “I’m applying to 19 programs.” And then this huge package comes in the mail, full of stamped envelopes and forms and instructions, letters that go to the student, letters that go to the dean, letters that go to the program, letters you must sign on the seal, letters you mustn’t fold, letters you must include in a greater package to come.
Now, many programs use email references. This is wonderful. You get your 19 notices in your inbox, forget about them till the last minute, then some lonely Sunday night spend an hour and half cutting and pasting whatever letter you’ve managed to write, and filling out those forms that ask you to rank your candidate. Funny, but at least ten percent of my students have been in the top 2% of students I’ve taught!
I taught in the MFA program at Ohio State and remember well the pleasures of working through the stacks of new MFA applicants each year: you could cruise along through the folders quickly making yes, no, and maybe piles just on the first paragraphs of the writing samples. That may sound arbitrary, but it’s plain true: at least 75% and maybe 85% of the people applying have no business doing so. Which sounds like bad news but it’s not. It means, if you’re applying and you’re well qualified, you’re already in the top quartile of applicants.
I never looked at test scores or grades or reference letters or anything but the writing (including any application essays) till it came time to decide on my top picks before the MFA committee meeting. The MFA committee was the same as the MFA faculty. In a given year, you might bring ten or more picks to the table. Some years, I winnowed the pile and came up with ten, no particular struggle. Other years, I’d have thirty possibles. You’d read the writing samples again, read them complete, read them carefully. Then you’d think about having that person in your program.
New college grads were not taken very seriously except in cases of brilliance. High GRE scores predicted success, but low GRE scores predicted nothing—in fact, many of our very best writers came in with 400s on their verbals, and you’d have to make the case for them. They hadn’t been great undergrads, but often they were the best grad students, focused, motivated, talented.
Anyway, the letters were not very important, unless I knew the letter writer. And if I knew the writer and thought the vote was going to be close I’d call her. What about this kid? Half the time they’d say, “Oh, Jesus. That kid’s a pain in the ass.”
In the meeting, your own top five or so would generally be on most everyone’s list. In they’d go, with maybe a passing nod at great letters. The next five would generate a lot of discussion, though sometimes we’d just each pick a favorite and be done with it. Again, the decisions were made on the basis of writing samples, and most of the discussion centered on the writing. Though you’d get down to scores and letters and stuff.
The really great thing was having these files turn into students the next fall, actual people picked wisely or sometimes–rarely, actually–not.
On that end of the equation, letter writers have wonderful ways to let you know what they really think: “Bob Harris, who was in my intro to poetry class, is by no means the dimmest student I have ever had.”
I’ve developed a policy of saying no when I’d rather not write, but my gosh, the letters I had to finesse when I used to write for all comers, feeling it my duty to help them all along. “Sally types her manuscripts very neatly, and comes to my office hours nearly every day.”
I have friends who’ve decided to write just a single letter a year in a given class of letters. Just write for the best.
Do you get emails from kids you flunked? I do. The letters always start, “I know you won’t remember me, but I’ve finally decided to take the plunge and apply to Iowa!” Yes, Jeff, I do remember you. You called me a fucking asshole in class that time and stormed out, filed a complaint against me, kicked in my front door in the middle of the night. Of course, one is tempted to say okay and then just say the truth. “Jeff is a dangerous sociopath, and he can’t write.” But now I know to say no. Just no. I can’t. You don’t say why, you don’t go on and on. You just say no. I can’t. That way, people know when they get a letter from you, they’ve got a candidate to look at closely.
More often, of course, the letters are a pleasure to write. I love the idea that I might be tipping a close vote for a student whose work and presence I’ve enjoyed.
My best letters are for favorite former students or colleagues applying for teaching positions, people who really deserve them. My policy here is one letter per job opening. With the market so poor, you often get five or ten letter requests for a single good job! (A recent hire at the local university, a decent job but no plum, turned out 500 apps! Though of course only the usual five percent actually had any faint chance.) With luck, I’ve got files of my observations of their classes to reproduce, and copies of their student evaluations to quote. These are the long letters. These are the detailed letters. Because unlike student applications, professor applications are for the long term. I’ve been on hiring committees, and I tell you, you parse every word in top applicants’ files. You read between the lines. Because these are people you’re going to have to live with, at least until tenure time, when with great pain and hard work you can get rid of them. Or affirm your earlier judgment and keep them on.
But I always hated long letters. You want someone to say, this guy is great. I mean it. A genius. Call me, let’s talk. You’re lucky to have him in your pool. His book is terrific—but you’ve read it, you know that. He’s really funny. He’s a great cook. His family is nice. He is beloved by students. He’s dedicated to service. He’s going to be a great friend, even a lover if you need one. He’ll mow your lawn, he’ll babysit your dogs and cats. He gives an incredible massage. I mean this as my very highest praise and recommendation.
That’s enough, right?