Advice on Writing Letters of Recommendation for the MFA in Creative Writing

Recently, I commented on a post in the Creative Writing Pedagogy Facebook group about writing letters of recommendation, and I thought I might elaborate on that advice here. The original post was asking about what adjectives were good to use to describe the applicant and which ones might send the wrong signal. I get it, we all probably second-guess what we’re writing and worry we might say the wrong thing when we’re trying to be nice. The original question was whether hard-working was a good attribute or might make the applicant sound like they had to work too hard to achieve. My initial advice was to worry less about the adjectives you use and to try to be specific about the applicant.

One of my earliest posts about the MFA application process was about who to ask for letters of recommendation, which can be especially challenging when applying to a low-res program like ours since applicants may have been out of school for a long time and may be switching careers. I think that’s still good advice, but it doesn’t help the recommender know how to pitch a letter. I’ve written many letters over my career, and I’ve received hundreds of them for applicants to our program, so I think I have a pretty decent idea of what to do and what to avoid.

I’d like to follow Ezra Pound’s advice for writing poetry and say to avoid adjectives altogether, though I know from writing letters that isn’t always possible. So what I would say is not to rely on adjectives, adverbs, or stock phrases to describe the writer you’re recommending. What really impresses me is specificity. If you describe a poem or story that the student wrote for you, I’ll be impressed that the writer made an impression and you remember it well. If you describe the way they interact with other students in class or comment on their participation in workshop, that gives me a better sense of the kind of student they will be in our program than if you give them one superlative adjective (though a few adjectives will probably also be part of your description).

A letter of recommendation can tell me a number of things. It can tell me that the student really went to your school and made a good impression. It can tell me they are a decent human being who is able to work well with others and won’t be a pain in the rear. It can tell me that someone else believes in the student and has seen their potential. And a letter of recommendation can fill in some background, especially when the recommender knows why the applicant may have had a bad semester or why their early academic career is less impressive than their later ones.

I’ve written letters like this, where I maybe didn’t know or didn’t feel comfortable revealing all the details of the personal issues that caused an academic issue, but I could speak to how my student had turned their lives around and/or persevered, and why I knew their GPA was not the best indicator of their potential for success in grad school.

Most letters only confirm what I already know from reading the applicant’s application and writing sample. Nothing you say in your letter will likely change my opinion of their writing sample, but your letter can fill in some blanks and help me see the whole person better.

Things I like to see in a recommendation letter (and things I try to include when I write mine) are: That the student gives insightful comments in workshop. That the student takes constructive criticism well and also responds to it creatively (not just doing what they’re told to do, but finding creative solutions). That the student is easy to work with. That the student has good analytical skills. That they’re a good student — and back to the original question: hard-working is a sign of a good student in my book. That you actually know the student and care about their success in grad school.

Probably the only adjective I really care about is the one that precedes recommend: do you highly recommend, do you give your highest recommendation, etc. Even then, I will take this with a grain of salt.

What if you’re a literature professor recommending someone to a writing program. We see this all the time, and I’m always glad to see it. Our program includes literature and forms classes, so we will require students to do literary and other kinds of research. The applicant’s skills in a lit class are important, in other words. You can also describe what the student is like as a student, and tell about their analytical writing. It’s fine to say that you can’t judge their creative work — we will do that with their writing sample anyway — and to concentrate on the other aspects of their academic preparation for graduate school.

And what if you’re not an academic at all? We always recommend to applicants that they have some recommenders who teach, if at all possible, but we get plenty of recommendations from non-academics. The reason we recommend academics as recommenders is simply because most academic write recommendations for grad school all the time, so we assume they will have a pretty good idea of what to write, and they will have seen the applicant in an academic setting. But for many low-residency MFA applicants, that’s simply not an option.

We treat non-academic recommenders a little differently. We know you’re not used to the language of a grad school recommendation letter, and we know you may not have seen the applicant in a professional writing situation. We are looking for your insight into the applicant’s character, work ethic, and goals for their degree. We don’t want you to write like an academic, in other words, but we do want you to describe the experience you’ve had with the applicant in as much detail as you can.

A letter of recommendation is usually 1-2 single-spaced pages, with 2 pages being the target length. It should be written like a business letter on official letterhead, if at all possible. Try to be as specific as possible about your experience with the applicant, and remember that what you don’t say can be as enlightening as what you do say. Take some time with it, in other words. Don’t just dash of a note that confirms that the applicant worked for you; tell us about the applicant, even if you can’t evaluate them as a writer.

I’ve seen some pretty underwhelming recommendation letters over the years, but most of the ones I see are thoughtful and informative. I try not be influenced by the ones that were dashed off or seemed not to have a clue about how to write a decent letter. But the fact of the matter is, though those letters don’t hurt the applicant, they don’t help them much either. I love the letter that makes me feel more confident in my decision to accept someone, and I don’t believe I’ve ever turned someone down solely because of their letters. But I do think there are times when a strong letter has made me take a closer look at an applicant who I might have overlooked otherwise.

Our program is not terribly cut-throat. We also don’t offer a lot of funding. We can accept most applicants who we believe are ready and will be a good match for our program. We read and evaluate the applicant’s letter of intent and writing sample before we ever request letters of recommendation, so there’s a good chance the person you’re writing for will be accepted. Your letter confirms our initial opinion, and along with the transcripts, helps us decide whether the applicant has what they will need to be successful in our program.

More competitive programs, such as those with full funding, may put more weight on the recommendation letter by necessity. Then the reputation of the recommender and the kinds of things they say in the letter may have a greater impact. My advice is to concentrate on the things you can have an effect on. You can’t change whether your reputation will help the applicant or whether your school will be impressive, but you can write a conscientious, detailed letter that speaks with specificity about your experience with the applicant. If you do this, you will have done your best to help them on their way. In my experience both as a letter writer and a reader, this will be enough.

Published by Kendall Dunkelberg

I am a poet, translator, and professor of literature and creative writing at Mississippi University for Women, where I direct the Low-Res MFA in Creative Writing, the undergraduate concentration in creative writing, and the Eudora Welty Writers' Symposium. I have published three books of poetry, Barrier Island Suite, Time Capsules, and Landscapes and Architectures, as well as a collection of translations of the Belgian poet Paul Snoek, Hercules, Richelieu, and Nostradamus. I live in Columbus with my wife, Kim Whitehead; son, Aidan; and dog, Aleida.

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