It’s once again that time of year when students are applying for degree programs, young artist programs, bursaries, scholarships, summer festivals, and grants. With each application, letters of reference are required and are an integral part of administrators being able to gauge the talent, dedication, potential, and suitability of each candidate. In order to be a teacher fully dedicated to the future of your students, there are several elements of reference-writing that need to be observed, and being able to write an accurate, honest, suitable, and suitable letter of reference is a huge part of being able to propel your students forward to their next level of achievement. Here are some things to keep in mind:
1. Make sure your students request letters as early as possible. I usually insist on at least two weeks notice before the letter is due to allow for my busy schedule. Always insist on clarity regarding which institution needs the letter, which person, office, or department it should be sent to, the correct mailing address, and when the deadline is. Be sure to differentiate between arrival deadlines and postmark deadlines, as arrival deadlines will often require mailing over a week ahead of time at certain times of the year (ie. the holiday season). Another good idea if you have students applying to multiple programs or institutions is to request a full list of places that need letters, along with addresses and deadlines.
2. Determine the format of the reference. Does the institution require a letter to be sent with the application or can it be sent separately? Can it be sent on letterhead or does it require the school’s own customized reference form? Does it need to be typed or handwritten? Do they request a paper copy or do they want it sent as an attachment? Does your student need you to send the letter via a placement service such as Interfolio? Being clear with the format will get an important technicality out of the way that can alleviate big headaches as deadlines approach.
3. Determine what the recipients of the letter might be looking for. Different types of programs of study require different a slightly different angles in recommendation letters. For example, an graduate program will be looking for evidence of accomplished artistry with proven academic and research ability in a candidate. Young artist programs, opera companies, and government grants have even more focused needs. Determining at the outset just what the reference is for will in large part determine what you should write about.
4. Be as specific and accurate as possible. Exactly how many months or years have you worked with your student? In what capacity? As a private teacher or at an institution? Which institution? For a class or private lessons? For their primary or secondary instrument? Where were they in their progress when lessons commenced? What issues did you work on in lessons? What inner qualities did you notice in their work? What kind of progress did they make? What types of other musical activities did they take part in? How did they do in competitions? Did they have any disabilities, challenges, or adversity to overcome in their musical work? Being able to fill in these details will allow your student’s qualities to shine through in your writing and give a clearer view to the target institution of what they’re dealing with.
5. Be concise. Administrators judging candidates sometimes have to wade through hundreds, even thousands of reference letters. A brilliant 3-page analysis of your student’s progress will simply never be read in its entirety. On the other hand, focus on paring and distilling your prose to give those reading the letter an essential snapshot of what you feel is important in your student’s work. For the most part, one page will do.
6. Avoid superlatives whenever possible unless you really mean them. “Billy is, in my opinion, the finest singer of his generation”. Yeah, right. It’s perfectly okay to say that your students aren’t ready to launch their careers yet, are working on certain aspects of their performance, and still have a ways to go in certain respects. Undergraduate programs in particular aren’t necessarily looking for finished musicians, but developing ones who still have a long way to go and can rely on their potential, work ethic, and inner qualities in order to achieve excellence. On audition panels, I’ve read many spectacular letters of reference advertising God’s gift to the performing arts, only to be spectacularly disappointed when these applicants failed to deliver in the audition room. Beware–this may ultimately reflect negatively on the one who wrote the letter. Far more effective are letters that accurate and mete out their compliments with restraint, and are congruent with what the student is actually able to accomplish.
7. Proofread, proofread, proofread. Many letters written a fit of inspiration contain grave errors of spelling, punctuation, and grammar. [Be sure to spot the grammatical error in the previous sentence, which was overlooked through several proofreads – thanks, Shannon!] As an authority in your field and a guardian of the highest musical ideals, you don’t want to look like a clod by making silly mistakes in your letter advertising the accomplishments of your students. Once you’ve finished the letter, read it over several times. Put yourself in the administrator’s shoes–how would they read it? What kind of impression does the letter give of your student? Of you? Don’t send off the letter until you’re completely satisfied with what you’ve written.
8. Keep records of marks and put all your reference letters in one file on your computer. I’ve often received requests to write letters of reference for students that I haven’t taught in many years. My memory doesn’t always serve me correctly regarding exactly how they did in a course, but a quick peek at my marking logbook and previous letters of reference will save a lot of time in the memory recovery department. On the other hand, current students often need references on a continuing basis that need to be updated every few months to reflect how long I’ve been teaching them, as well as their progress and accomplishments. Create a file folder on your computer entitled “References” and save every single letter you ever write into that folder. You’ll thank yourself 10 years from now, as I did recently when I wrote a very positive reference for a student I last taught in 1998.
The nature of references is also changing. Many colleges searching for faculty have dispensed with written references altogether (on grounds of their subjectivity) and prefer to talk to referees in person. For a colleague who had recently applied for a tenure-track position at a university, I was called directly by the selection committee and gave my reference report to them via telephone. No doubt they took note of not just my responses to their targeted questions, but also to my tone of voice and other verbal cues to make their decision. And although I was a little sad to lose a trusted colleague when the person was hired for the position, I was nevertheless proud of the fact that I was able to assist in their career ascent.