Despite rising skepticism, Yale community members continue to defend letters of recommendation as an appropriate form of character testimony to contextualize an applicant.
The vast majority of the summer positions and post-graduate jobs that students pursue require some form of recommendation letter from professors. For example, the Office of Career Strategy found in the 2019 Summer Activities Report that 55.2 percent of returning students held internships or paid jobs, 20.5 percent participated in academic or language studies and slightly more than 10 percent conducted research — most of which require such letters.
“Letters are important in every field because from our perspective they offer more than just academic support,” wrote Rebekah Westphal, assistant dean of Yale College and director of fellowship programs at the Center for International and Professional Experience, in an email to the News.
According to Westphal, letters of recommendation remain “an incredibly important part of fellowship applications.” She also described the interaction between recommender and student as a mentor-mentee relation. She emphasized that recommenders are “great resources for guidance and support” and said that she hopes students keep in touch with professors whom they ask to write recommendations.
Bianca Beck ’23 and JR Im ’23 spoke of the importance of selecting a professor who knows students closely and can attest to skills relevant to the position. For Im, the clear choice was a STEM expert.
“I asked a STEM professor,” Im said. “Just because I’m a STEM major, and I know more STEM professors.”
Beck, who applied for the Light Fellowship this past year, explained that she selected her English professor to write a recommendation on her behalf. She noted that she asked him because “he was [her] only seminar teacher last semester” and “would know [her] the best.”
Still, while Beck found someone to write a letter, she said that some first years may struggle to find a recommender after just months on campus.
“I think for first years [it’s hard] because you don’t really have seminars and teachers that know you well, but for upperclassmen I feel like it’s probably easier,” she said.
In an email to the News, Kristin McJunkins, director of health professions advising and STEM Connect at the OCS, pointed to a challenge STM students face in seeking recommendations. She said that STEM classes can be especially large or taught by a team of instructors “early in the undergraduate years,” which can hinder student-professor relationships. Still, she said that this is often less of an obstacle in later years when all upperclassmen take more seminars and build stronger bonds with professors.
McJunkins spoke to letters of recommendation in the context of graduate school applications and career planning. Employers most often request “a list of professional references” and will less frequently require a letter of recommendation.
But in applying to graduate and professional schools, letters of recommendation are highly valued. For example, law schools generally request two recommendations while health professions programs ask for as many as six, according to McJunkins.
English professor David Kastan described the recommender’s task in the process in an email to the News.
“Of course the recommendation is a professor’s ‘often limited/specific vision of that student,’ but that is what a recommendation is — and the readers of a recommendation know that and in fact want that,” Kastan wrote when asked about the limitations of recommendation letters.
Some professors think fondly of the process. Kastan said he regards recommendations “as pay back for the pleasure students have given me and paying forward all the kindness of my recommenders who allowed me to get here.”
OCS and CIPE advise students to make requests for recommendations four to six weeks in advance.
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