The current process is unmanageable, inconsistent and an unnecessary burden on my kind references.
Last year I sought no fewer than two dozen recommendation letters.
A baker’s dozen were for grant proposals. Six were for writing and reporting fellowships, three for a visiting research scholar position, two for writing residencies. I expect that the total will continue to grow.
I fully accept that I need recommendation letters, but the process, as it stands now, is unmanageable, inconsistent and an unnecessary burden on the kind people who have been writing these letters at my request.
The procedures in applications vary widely. One requests that letters be sent directly by the person writing the recommendation. Another requires that applicants first forward a template to a recommender, who must use that model to write a letter, which is then to be emailed to the program director. Many programs, retreats, universities and institutions, even The New York Times, require that letters be submitted through external websites. Third-party services like Submittable, SlideRoom and Screendoor collect applications and dispatch recommendation requests, which is fine, since I shudder at the prospect of handling and reviewing letters about me.
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But this doesn’t seem fair to the people writing the letters. I dread asking the same people for the same basic thing repeatedly, knowing they will have to alter their recommendations to fit the requirements of new applications.
Michael Shapiro, a professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism who has cheerfully written at least a dozen recommendations on my behalf, recently wrote one that was only 48 words long. Nine of them were adjectives. His note was apparently effective because I was appointed to the position for which I had applied.
Still, I feared that I had finally worn him out. He assured me that I hadn’t and that I had given him enough time to handle all these requests. But for the future, he asked me to keep in mind one rule that he asks of all students: allow at least two weeks to prepare a recommendation letter.
“Getting a note saying ‘and the deadline is today at 5 latest’ makes me feel as if I will wilt under the pressure of a deadline that is not my own,” Shapiro said.
Because I keep finding new opportunities — or, perhaps, keep overextending myself — I often go shopping for new recommendations. Most people I approach say they are happy to help. Pride and camaraderie and fellowship are compelling: Colleagues and contemporaries usually say they would be delighted to provide recommendations. Yet sometimes I realize I am asking a colleague to complete a tedious form or write a letter during a precious holiday weekend. I feel terrible about that.
A recent enlistee, Seyward Darby, executive editor of The Atavist Magazine, wrote a recommendation letter for me graciously. Darby says she writes six to 10 of them each year and would like to see a streamlined system, modeled, perhaps, on the standard Common Application used by many colleges.
That “would definitely be convenient for an editor (or anyone, really) who submits recommendations on the regular,” she wrote in an email. More important, she said, “a coordinated system would be vital to freelancers.”
Darby suggested the creation of a central repository where recommendations assessing “accomplishments, skills, and character, are always waiting to be read.” That would cut down on “time and stress,” she said.
LinkedIn has instituted a system in which recommendation letters may be viewed and shared. “It’s always been very important to understand what other people think of you,” said Hari Srinivasan, director of product management at LinkedIn. Adding reference letters to your profile leads to more opportunities, he said. “Before you even get into the process of someone asking for” a recommendation, he said, it will already be visible.
LinkedIn’s innovation is helpful, but many workplaces still ask for independent references and letters. And a professional workforce could use a clearinghouse that is both more private and more inclusive: a place where recommendation letters are available only for people who have received permission to see them.
Call it iRecommend, a website in which applicants gather testimonials from people who attest to their workmanship and credibility. Those who write these letters would need to prepare only one generalized recommendation for anyone, with the ability to retract it for any reason and at any time. As someone amasses recommendations, a career path might be linked to a résumé that could guide a reviewer toward a decision.
To me, at least, this seems like a reasonable option. Until something of this nature is instituted, though, I will need to continue gathering references and recommendation letters — and writing them for people I know are worthy of them. But I do wish there were a better way.