Reference Season

categories: Cocktail Hour


hiring committee

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?

  1. LeRoi writes:

    Dear Mr. Roorbach Sir,

    Could you please put all my jittery commie claptrap aside and nominate me for a MacArthur fellowship that I promise I’ll split with you?

    Your bestest friend,

    • Bill writes:

      We don’t have any pull over there, but you are eligible for a Bill and Dave’s “Genius” Grant, which is simply the cocktail of your choice next time we cross paths.

      • LeRoi writes:

        Gee thanks. I wrote that on the off-chance you might be one of the secret nominators/referees (referants?). Try as I might, I can’t work ‘akimbo’ into this reply. But I know I wrote it somewheres oncet, dagnabit.

  2. ihath writes:

    What a lovely post, enjoyed reading it.

  3. What a delightful post! I just finished my MFA applications (whew!), and reading this made me pause and think warmly of my lovely recommenders.

  4. Seth Abramson writes:

    Hi Bill,

    Just wanted to correct you on one thing — there are presently 198 low- and full-residency MFA programs… in the world. That higher number (850 or so) is a misreading, by The New Yorker and others, of AWP’s tally of all creative writing “programs” of any type, which range from hundreds of non-degree-granting Creative Writing “tracks” within undergrad English majors to academic Master’s degrees in English which permit some students to do a creative thesis, from doctoral programs in English Lit with the possibility of a creative dissertation to the sort of programs you’re talking about here.

    Great article, though! Was very happy to read it.



    • Bill writes:

      Thanks Seth–I’m glad to have this corrected. 198 is still a lot of programs to choose from, and a lot of graduates roaming the corridors of poetry, etc… I appreciated your piece on 25 underrated MFA programs on Huffington Post. I do think the programs offering creative masters theses and PhD dissertations count for my discussion: I’m always writing letters for them…

  5. Richard Gilbert writes:

    I really enjoyed this, Bill, and was horrified by that complex, enter-the-sweepstakes-type-paperwork for one applicant. Did they make you paste the gold star on the clown’s nose? You do a good job of showing the pleasure of helping former students, too. By chance, yesterday I was at a photo printing service in town and a kid in there looked familiar and kept looking at me. Turns out he was in one of my freshman composition classes over three years ago in another city and at a different university. Great kid, and great class where everything clicked. We chatted and it brought back him and that class; later I even remembered his cute essay on how much he loved the book Holes as a kid. It’s great to reconnect and to help someone like that, if asked. He’s good people, and obviously thought the same of me. That’s what these references are about, as you say: Is this someone who, beyond ability, is okay as a human being?

  6. Dave writes:


    Great post. Finally have to read again. Glad you like the on-line recs. I hate them. Never can figure them out and then think I’m done when it all disappears. Rather deal with envelops though that isn’t very eco of me.


  7. Julie writes:

    Bill! It’s undergraduate-hopefuls-reference-letter-writing season, too, and reading this amidst drafting recommendations for my seniors is making me: a) laugh, and b) miss you. I haven’t mastered the art of saying “no” yet, but I managed to dissuade a chronically lazy student from having me write for them by asking the very loaded question: Do you REALLY think a letter from ME will get you into college? Oh, and, p.s., want to write me a grad school recommendation? Just kidding…

  8. Rags writes:

    Dear Mr. Roorbach

    I’m applying (from India) to MFA Fiction programs (in the US) this year. I’m glad I’ve stumbled upon your blog.

    My sample consists of two stories. The first story–a light-hearted one–is about a British-Indian who is forced to travel through the Indian hinterland to get to his wife, who is in her aunt’s village. The second story–serious and rural-based–juxtaposes untouchability and Buddhism. I saw a flow and hence ordered the stories in this fashion.

    However, you mention that the admissions committee make “yes, no, and maybe piles just on the first paragraphs of the writing samples.” My first story’s first paragraph is more expository than great shakes, while the second’s is powerful and evocative.

    Will admissions committees read the first paragraphs of both stories before deciding my fate? Should I reverse the order so that the first paragraph they lay eyes on is the best; flow be damned? Is it better to have the serious story first and end on a lighter note?

    Your thoughts and comments on this matter would be highly appreciated.


    • Bill writes:

      Dear Rags: Um, hard to answer, of course. I’d probably suggest sending one story only. The page limits for these applications are maximum length, not a suggestion for total pages to send. I always loved a short, sharp application. But others may see it differently. Send the story that’s best at the beginning, best in the middle, and best in the end, also in all the interstices. No great shakes will mean no MFA program, I’m afraid. All yours, Riches

    • John Jack writes:


      Some observations from a fellow traveler; I’ve noted U.S. MFA writing programs emphasize character genre, where a narrative prioritizes internal character complication and purpose in antagonistic opposition over external complication and purpose in antagonistic opposition, otherwise known as internal conflict and external conflict.

      An opening, whatever the emphasis–character, setting, event, or idea–introduces the main dramatic complication of a narrative. A middle portrays efforts to address the main dramatic complication. And an ending is the final outcome of the main dramatic complication. Ideally though, any given narrative has a weighted allotment of character, setting, event, and idea influences, as well as dramatic structure influences, also known as plot.

      Engaging openings introduce a main or bridging dramatic complication as soon as humanly possible. In other words, a complication is an insuperable problem, and a narrative’s plot reports purposeful efforts to solve the problem. Introducing a problem early can engage readers’ empathy and create emotional suspense; in other words, create tension and thus engage reader rapport from the beginning.

      A final outcome of a complication portrays a completed reversal of circumstances from beginning circumstances, i.e., good fortune to bad, bad fortune to good, bad to worse finalizing with good fortune, or good to better finalizing to bad fortune.

      The former two are what I know as simple plots, the latter two complex plots. A simple plot doesn’t have significant recognitions nor surprising, abrupt reversals, anagnorisis and peripetia respectively. A complex plot has either anagnorisis or peripetia or both. I feel character genre favors complex plots.

      Oversimplification, sure; formulaic, sure; though structure isn’t in my estimation generally an emphasis of writing programs and aesthetics are, structural qualities shape a narrative into a synergistic whole that fulfills cultural coding conventions and satisfy with potent emotional payoffs.

      Character genre writing samples in my considered opinion have a stronger chance of fulfilling some of the objective screening parameters of writing programs.

      • Bill writes:

        I don’t know, John, I think you may be over-complicating things by a degree or two, not oversimplifying. The truth is, there are now some 700 MFA in writing programs out there, and each has its own personality, and its own personalities, faculty members with tastes and ideas of their own. My main thing reading applications was always: do I have something to offer this person, given the writing. Some programs may in fact emphasize one kind of writing or another, consciously or not–the job of the applicant is to pick out five or six programs that seem to do what the applicant wants to do, and apply accordingly. You want to know who’s on the faculty, know what kind of writing they do. You want to visit the program, meet some of the students. If you can’t visit, you can still enter in e-mail correspondence or the like. People are generally pretty helpful. If not, is that the right program? The big mistake first applicants make is just a couple of applications to the very top programs. Then you’re up against the numbers. Finally, keep in mind that there are no “objective screening parameters,” just a buncha overworked professors trying to make a call.

        • John Jack writes:

          Yep, there are no absolutes in creativity, save the one, there are no absolutes. Only pipe dream window shopping writing programs of every stripe, I noted an emphasis on character stories leading the pilaton. High hundreds of MFA writing programs and MA’s too with thousands of insider opinions and many more outsider opinions, millions maybe, and me stuck gazing into a crystal ball subconsciously sensing patterns.

          I’ve also encountered an impenetrable veil or seven that I’ve passed through creatively by overcomplicating things to the point I back into them or slide in sideways or upside down or engage in enfilading approaches. Narrative voice has been one of the tougher veils, finding my inner voice among the many in my head and reconciling the chaos has meant refinding a displaced center of being.

          At least reading is again a profound experience after a dark time where nothing felt worthy of a participation mystique. And my writing is benefiting.

          • Rags writes:

            Dear John Jack,

            Many thanks on your inputs. I’m afraid I need to study your comments closer and see how I can apply it to my writing. What you say has value; only, I don’t think I’ll be able to apply it to my current writing sample that I’m using in applications.

            Dear Mr. Roorbach,

            I recently completed a new story that I believe is great shakes. I’m replacing my 2 stories with this single one – sharp, though not really short. So, 2/3 of the schools will receive my earlier sample while the latter 1/3 will get this new one. I guess we will have a winner after all.

            Thanks again on the input.

            • Bill writes:

              Rags, do let us know what happens with your apps… you’ve got an interesting if not scientific experiment going!

              • Rags writes:

                I bring grave tidings. The interesting, unscientific experiment did throw up a uniform result. None of the schools I applied to accepted me.

                On the bright side, I have another 6 months to better my writing before I get into application mode again.

              • Bill writes:

                Rags, it’s not so bad, and in fact happens often before success, esp to younger applicants to MFA programs. You’re right that there’s a bright side. You have time to get some writing done, and you have time to more closely research programs. Meanwhile, find yourself a writing group. Best of luck, and go get ’em!

  9. Emily writes:

    Great blog article. I’m currently a senior writing major and am definitely considering getting my MFA. One main factor that I’ve been trying to keep in mind for this whole process is how to stay on top of my portfolio and references as the years go by.

    Do you have any guidance or recommendations for students who decide to go for the life experience before hitting the MFA scene? More relevant to the blog, what references are key for a MFA applicants who apply five years after graduation?

    I’m trying to stay focused and make sure that this time is utilized… but it’s easier said than done on this side of the graduation stage.

    • Bill writes:

      Well, a great referee would be the editor of your first collection or novel… But since that’s a pretty steep climb, I’d vote for a writing conference or two between stints in the Merchant Marine. At, say, Bread Loaf, you’ll meet a number of writers, and perhaps start professional relationships you can keep up, maybe even friendships. And these contacts can’t just be practical–you’ll have to really love the writing your new acquaintances make and understand it and think about it and communicate with them about it and learn from them in a way that makes them think, Sure, I’ll write for this kid! And keep up with your college profs, too. A sincere note once in a while, not just bullshit. They’ll be interested in what you’re up to. They won’t forget you. And remember that the writing is going to be the most important thing, and five years is enough time to really, really grow. Unless you panic and go to law school or something.

    • John Jack writes:

      Speaking from experience three years and counting post BFA graduation, I’m glad I wasn’t accepted into the writing programs I applied to in my undergraduate senior year. I was emotionally prepared for graduate studies and my study skills and writing were mechanically up to it but my writing wasn’t stylistically or structurally or aesthetically up to par.

      I feel if I’d migrated straight through to graduate studies I’d have still needed at least the three years of the independent studies I’ve carried on to get where I am stylistically, structurally, and aesthetically now. And I had time to decompress and assimilate what I’d learned in undergraduate studies. I learned some harsh truths about myself too.

      Although I was deeply wounded by the rejections, I now appreciate why I didn’t pass muster. The intervening time has served me well. Time and conscientious, critical contemplation sutures all wounds.

      I’d already had a maritime career or two when I entered undergraduate writing studies. And then some. Vocational tourist, blue collar intellectual, mercenary narratologist, cosmopolitan vagagond, and reluctant maverick pretty much sums up my vocational and life career to date. I’ve had plenty of life experience. More writing study and application are in store for this free-booting bucaneer’s poet’s journey.

  10. Pamela Painter writes:

    A fabulous post. Love the letter you most want to read. Now I’m going back to writing recs–with a smile.

  11. Dinty writes:

    Bill, you make me smile. Telling it like it is, as always.

  12. Catherine Cordero writes:

    I noticed comma splices and sentence fragments in John Jack’s comments. Fortunately, I am not in a position to recommend anyone for anything, but I would carefully edit any letter I sent requesting such support.

    • Bill writes:

      And did you notice in the awful photo I chose for this post they’re shooting the guy right in front of a window? That can’t be right.

  13. chelsea writes:

    Thank you for giving me a glimmer of hope. Every application I submitted last year was rejected, and though my writing sample (and practice and output) has improved since then, I wasn’t sure it would be enough for the schools this year.

    Now, I know it just might be.

    • Bill writes:

      There’s a large element of luck in these things. And a lot of competition. Everything changes year to year. Most important you–a year of writing practice can make all the difference. A couple of years in the Merchant Marine even more! Average age for MFA entrants is somewhere late twenties, close to thirty, anyway a few years out of college with experience, and therefore something to write about and within.

  14. John Jack writes:

    I’m in requesting reference letter mode myself. I’m a little intimidated since it’s been several years since I graduated BFA. The MA writing program I’m applying to prefers at least two academic references out of three required. The university graduate school prefers an online Web form reference letter submission process. Making that part of the process straightforward for savvy referers and applicants, including specific prompts, focus areas, and talking point recommendations. The transcripts are still hardcopy, with digital submission of the writing sample and mission statement to the graduate school. Three hardcopies of the writing sample and mission statement directly to the program. It’s an MA program so naturally the GRE is required.

    The online application process streamlines the reference request process. An applicant fills out the application. The reference request section sends e-mails to referers’ e-mail addresses as provided by the applicant. The e-mails contain secure referer login information. Of course, applicants are advised to contact referers in advance so the request e-mails don’t come out of the blue. An applicant can check on the status of referers posting the references along with checking the receipt of transcripts and application status.

    So would you consider writing me a reference, Mr. Roorbach? I’m not entirely kidding around, though I recognize you have no experience with how I might conduct myself as a graduate student, academically, pedagogically, behaviorally, or socially.

    We only met once in passing very briefly. I was also in the audience at the 2006 UNCW Writers Week “Truth in Creative Nonfiction” panel. I was very taken with your comment about the possibilities of a pathological liar as an unreliable narrator for a creative nonfiction piece. I’ve, of course, read and studied Writing Life Stories</i), and have a copy close at hand along with other books and novels I frequently refer to. A classmate offered to buy it from me at the end of Mr. Gessner's Beginning Creative Nonfiction course, fall 2005, I couldn't part with it.

    • Bill writes:

      John, I love your cheek and even your comma splices and fragments, but I don’t know you at all, so I don’t think I’d be your best shot at a letter. Best is someone who’s known you years and can really sing your praises, maybe along with a realistic sentence in there about your deficits, just to prove the rest is worth heeding…. But if you ever need a letter about your being a great blog responder, and funny to boot, I’m your man!

      • John Jack writes:

        I gotcha. I’m a love, fight, or share a light kind of opinion bubba with a social agrophobia who no one but family can stand for more than a few hours over a couple days. It’s mutual. I’ve got three appropriate referers in mind who’ve done me solids before and others as backups, all of which spent some small time putting up with my shennagins once or twice a week over a semester or two.

        Yup, yup, uh-huh, blog conversatin’ and Formal Written English are two entirely different faces.

        My attempt at italics for the book title there above went off in the head. The closing tag is supposed to be end with a greater than symbol not a close parenthesis. Opening tag: less than symbol, letter I, greater than symbol, italics string. Close tag; less than symbol, forward slash, letter I, greater than symbol.