How I Write a Recommendation Letter

Well, it’s been a year, so it’s about time to write another blog post, I guess. This one is about a common task for fall-time: writing recommendation letters for students on the job market.

recommendedThis post is musings about my process in writing letters of recommendation for students on the academic and other job markets. It might help those of you who will eventually ask for a letter from me (or from someone else) get a sense of what really matters as you slog your way through school.

The first thing you should know is that by-and-large, I won’t write a letter of recommendation for someone I can’t actually recommend. If I’m writing you a letter, I believe in you and want you to get that job. I follow best practices as much as I can. Then I do this stuff:

What do I look at?

  • Your transcript – But not for grades. I look at classes, think about themes, and consider what you’re trained in. But I basically ignore your grades.
  • Your  C.V. / resume. I have to match what you say about yourself, and I get all those vital details about what you’ve done from your C.V.
  • Your own letter. Cover or statement of purpose letters tell me why  you should get the job.
  • Your work. Papers, projects, assignments all help me know what you do and how well.

What do I write?

Intro. I start with how long I’ve known you, a summary sentence about you that frames the rest of the letter, and why I recommend you for that specific position. If I can’t see a reason to recommend you for that specific job, I can’t explain in my letter.

Your interests. I explain what you’re interested in and how I believe that fits the job you want from my perspective. If your interests are too vague, I can’t make solid claims about them.

Your big project. Your thesis, some big project, your dissertation: I explain with some detail why that project is great, and, crucially, why it’s important in the field. Here the heart is theory. It’s a good recommendation if I can say your theoretical thinking is solid. Otherwise I’m just saying, “he did this one thing this one time.” If I can’t expand that into why it matters to later projects, research, and/or jobs, then the Big Thing isn’t really helpful for anyone but you.

Other projects. I add details about things you’ve done to fill in a clear picture of you as a [scholar/student/professional]. Good rec letters have specifics, and I use other activities and accomplishments (from your C.V.) to talk about them. If your C.V. is too thin on specifics including software, who you worked with, how big or small the tasks were, and what resulted from your work, then I don’t have enough to say.

Contributions to the field. I am on the hook, especially with grad school and academic job apps, to explain how you matter in the field/industry. I make claims from my position in the field about your potential in the field. Your letter and C.V. help me with that, but I also have to analyze your work to assess you professionally. Almost like a paper reviewer, I have to make claims based on my own knowledge and reputation about why you will make significant contributions. I use evidence, citing specific papers or projects, to make these claims. If I don’t see your best work, I won’t give you the credit you’re due. If your work isn’t good enough, I won’t write you a letter in the first place.

Your training. I talk about classes, certificates, our program, and what you’ve been trained to do. From your transcript I paint a picture of how what you can do fits what they need. I also talk about if and how you’re a hard worker, which shows mostly in how responsive you are to things you do with me (not grades, see above). If I’ve never worked with (or taught) you, I probably won’t write a letter.

Your skills. I explain what you can do and how I know that. I mention how many classes you’ve taught, what your evaluations were, what internships you’ve had, what jobs you’ve had, and how well you did in them.  I don’t just say, “she can use Photoshop,” I say, “She is accomplished at Photoshop. She completed 15 complex projects using that software and taught other students how to use some of its more difficult tools.” That C.V. has to fill me in, here, or else I won’t be specific enough. (And lack of specifics is a sure sign of a polite but poor recommendation.)

Your teamwork. Yeah, I’m on the hook to say something about what it’s like to work and interact with you. If you’re an unpleasant but brilliant person I’ve decided to write a letter about, I find a way to gently suggest you work best alone. But if you work well with other students and help people out, that will be my go-to claim. If I don’t know how you interact with other people, I’m left with only my own impressions, and can’t say as much.

That’s my process. And my main recommendation to you? Make sure you have thought about each of these areas carefully, and find a way to communicate that to me. I want you to get the job! It looks good on me to have my people doing well. If you can find ways to help me help you, we’ll rock that job market together.


Turncoat Transformation – A New WoW Expansion

CalliopiaSo, yeah, I’ve gone Alliance for WoW’s latest and greatest expansion. Why? Well, it’s complicated, but has to do with guilds and friendlies and that sort of thing. My heart is still Horde, I swear it!

I’ve gone as transformative as you can in this game: race is the transforming human/wolf Worgen, class is the transforming Druid, and a glyph allows me to transform my Boomkin (big owl thing) into a gauzy version of my Worgen self.

Never, fear, I’m still leveling my dear Troll Shaman Lan, but she’ll wait patiently for more consistent play.

There, don’t you feel better? I promise, not a traitor. We’re all in this against the Iron Horde, after all! (I guess we’re the Good Horde).

This expansion is especially fun for me: we get our own private garrison! Outfitted as we see…. fit! No, not quite full on Sims home-decoration mechanic, but it’s home, and it’s mine. Well, Calliopia’s. And Lan’s.

Writing writing writing

As a professor, I generate, oversee, edit, review, and comment on a lotta, lotta writing. I may be an academic, but really, in an important sense, above all I am a writer, with all the attendant neuroses, fears, freezes, and inspirations that implies.

Recently, having added this book writing project to my (naw, not full at all!) plate, I’ve been reflecting on what it takes to keep that writing going.

A dear friend used to get up at 5 a.m. to work on her (done! published! successful!) book, to get in clear thinking before the flood of minutiae hijacked her day. That wasn’t going to work for me, so I turned to another trick I learned in graduate school: write for 15 minutes a day.

This sounds silly, I know. How can you get anything done in 15 minutes a day? you ask. You might be especially puzzled when I tell you that you don’t even have to write something “good” or “meaningful” as part of that 15 minutes. You’re  just supposed to write 15 minutes of anything related to your topic. Maybe you’ll just write, “Gah, I am so stuck on this section about the integrated implementation of utilizing schema to further provide advancement to the functionality of the relevant mechanisms…” (j.k., I don’t really write like that).

Or maybe you’ll write, “Oh book on school / you are so cool. / You will teach me not / to be a fool.” (no comment)

But actually, writing for 15 minutes a day is positively transformative. The short version is, it works. Try it.

The long version is my theory about why it works*: I believe that accessing the parts of your mind, focus, and energy that are associated with the writing you’ve tasked yourself with a) provides practice in spending time in that “writing space” in your head; b) lowers the fear/stress-based barriers to being productive on the project because it’s such a low-level commitment; and c) getting anything done at all, even 15 minutes of blather, makes you feel damn good (resulting in Happy Thoughts getting linked more and more with writing).

writingPicI urge my stuck graduate students to follow this advice, and if they’re really struggling, I make them go buy the book that taught me this. The advice is valid, I’ve found, for any kind of writing, not just academic stuff.

So if you’re on the hook to write, try writing something on it, anything on it, for 15 minutes a day, rain or shine, hell or high water. Be unrelenting! Never skip a day, no matter how uninspired, cranky, frustrated, terrified, annoyed, or overwhelmed you feel. It’s only 15 minutes. You can do anything for 15 minutes, right?

I promise it will make a difference.


*Note: These reasons why I think it works are Not Science, just my little theory.

Unlesson: You’ll need this later.

School world: Advance your skills and use them

For many people, the secret to a good high school and college education is selecting the classes that are The Most Useful. For much of today’s student body and its parents, that means picking a major that teaches skills, not philosophies, that produces articles, not essays, that trains you to work in concrete, not concerts.

Calls of “You can’t get a job doing that!” echo throughout parental advice sessions, as students contemplate literature, history, philosophy, religion, Greek, Latin, or French. No permutation of “but those are the classics!” will convince a worried parent (or student) staring down the barrel of mounting college debt that majoring in English is more expedient than engineering.

As a result, it’s a lot easier to bring home a nice, buttoned-up skills-based major to meet the parents than any leather-jacket-wearing, slick-haired, motor-cycle-riding rebel like Philosophy with a Cause. “I love to write,” my students tell me. “But my parents wanted me to major in something useful, so I’m in journalism, not English.”


“I love theater,” they say. “But my parents want to be sure I get a job when I graduate, so I’m studying event planning, not plays.”

“Architecture, not art.”

“PR, not political science.”

“Computer science, not comparative lit.”

You probably aren’t surprised to learn that the percent of graduates who hold traditional humanities degrees like English, history, or philosophy is indeed dropping (although other “useless” humanities degrees like art and music are on the rise).  But even though skills courses may be winning Most Likely to Succeed every year, the jump from classroom to workroom may not be quite as simple as it seems.

I’m not saying parents are wrong, but I am saying there may be some missing links in this logic. For example, it may seem obvious that knowledge of software is a lot more appealing to employers than critical analyses of Much Ado about Nothing. And there is no doubt employers are clamoring for college graduates with more demonstrable skills.

But what is less obvious is that it might not be your skills that land you a job. What’s more, aside from the fact that the software you learned so diligently in sophomore year is most certainly outdated by the time you graduate, what you think of as “skills” and what employers think of as “skills” might not be quite as similar as you (and your parents) assumed.

Work world: Get hired because you’ll be good at learning/love the work

A recent study found that the top three things employers are looking for in freshly-minted college grads are not about software, equations, or business plans. Instead, HR professionals of 2014 reported that hiring is all about personality. They’re looking for a positive attitude (84%), communication skills (83%) and an ability to work as a team (74%).

No, I’m not suggesting that want ads are going to start advertising for history majors. But I am suggesting that especially because the technologies of work are changing so quickly, whether it’s in social media marketing positions or digital rendering for landscaping projects, few employers expect new workers to walk in with the exact skills they’ll need every day.

As a result, employers say the most important things on your resume are more nebulous and confusing qualities, like “cultural fit” (43%), along with “relevant courses” (21%) and “internship experience” (13%). What that means is that the major listed on your resume is really most useful for expressing your interests and what you know how to learn, not precisely what you have learned. In other words, employers are usually looking for someone who will be interested and quick in learning the specific software, devices, styles, or techniques that company uses every day. Even if you have the best training, you’ll still have to learn to do it their way, not the way you learned in courses.

Extend out that logic, and it makes sense that an English major who took classes in science writing and had an internship in a medical center writing reports is going to be a better candidate than a medical services major who worked retail for four years.

Don’t take this idea too far, though. If you want to be a computer programmer, it really makes the most sense to major in some kind of computer programming. But the truth is, if you’re a philosophy major with demonstrable programming skills, you probably have a good shot at that job, too. Believe it or not, employers are just as worried about not finding the right person to hire as you are about finding someone to hire you.

At the end of the day, what employers want more than anything else is someone who can identify problems and solve them. Figure out how to let them know you can do that, in their business, really well, and you’ll be miles ahead of the game.

Where there is no path

Chapter 2: Unlessonsdo not go where the path my lead

Unlesson 1: Take the required classes

School World: A set path to success with predetermined checklists

When you were about 5 years old, you started following a very specific, pre-determined path. You were tested on particular ideas and activities, slotted into a particular location, and provided with particular things you would do to move forward on that path for the next 12 to 16 years of your life. All that you were and all that you did were focused around that path – your identity was defined by where you were on it: 3rd grade reading, 2nd grade math, motor skills at the 4th grade level. Maybe you were “advanced,” and had math lessons from farther along the path than your classmates. Or maybe, like one friend of mine, you were held back in kindergarten because you hadn’t quite mastered hopping on one foot. Extra-curriculars were side journeys you could take, but school was the main road.

The path you were following had been carefully mapped out to traverse the landscape of standards and knowledge and competencies. Someone – your parents, your teacher, your school district, your state, your country – told you what forks and branches would advance your journey, and which were impractical. When you arrived at each rest area, your achievements were marked with pomp, circumstance, and, quietly likely, a loose, musty robe and archaic flat-topped hat.

This clear, well-defined path is one of the best things about a school curriculum.

In school, the tasks we have to do to get to the next dot on the map are handed to us in workbooks and textbooks and notebooks. Do the task, learn the ideas, and progress to the next milestone.

This way of learning is very clear, and, for all the controversies around which vehicles get you to the next milestone most effectively, the map itself is very well-assessed and well-researched. A lot of smart people spend a lot of time telling you where you’re supposed to go next. Leave the path, and it’s still there waiting for you.

The path gets more flexible as you get older – in high school you get to pick more of your classes, and in college you’re even allowed to pick what topic you want to focus on. But even though you can choose your major, you probably had a long list of general requirements courses to give you a “well-rounded” college education. There was probably a pretty long checklist of classes you had to take to complete your major, too. Your choices, as important as they were in deciding how to get to Graduation City, were still within a constrained system that lead you to the destination you were told was the Right Place to Be.

But that brightly-lit, clearly marked path is also one of the worst things about a school curriculum.

Not just because you might not be so well-suited to the path that was handed to you, and not just because you might have preferred to take your path through the mountain instead of over it as you were instructed.

That path becomes a problem because it comes to an end. And once you reach the end, all your nice, clear training in how to get the most out of traveling the school path becomes obsolete. Now, you have to map out your own path. And that’s one thing school doesn’t really do a great job teaching you.

Work World: Find your own path

It might seem as though stepping into the world of work is like stepping into uncharted wilderness, and in some ways it is. There aren’t nearly as many clear, comfortable roadways for you to trundle along. It’s a morass of confusing, chaotic communities, ideas, and activities. School gives you some tools to tame that wilderness, but ultimately you have to clear your own way through the underbrush.[1]

Outside of school, there aren’t required lessons and well-marked milestones everyone agrees are the Right Place to Go. Instead of being given checklists, you’ll have to cobble together your own list of things to learn. Instead of big, brightly-lit accomplishments anyone can recognize, you’ll have small landmarks that might not mean much to people outside your one little corner of the work world.

Finding your own path is hard. You weren’t really trained for that. The way that school defined the world of learning and progress and achievement for you no longer applies – or at least, it no longer applies in the same way. Sure, you can go to graduate school, join an apprentice program, or become part of an organization that provides some paths for you as you go. But once you’ve arrived, once you have that job you’ve been training for, that’s when the path gets hazy.

So you’ll need to unlearn what the school system taught you about success, failure, advancement, knowledge, and ignorance. You’ll need to redefine “smart” and “dumb” –what you thought they mean probably isn’t what they will come to mean to you out in the wild, wild work world.

And sorry, but this book isn’t going to give you new definitions for any of that stuff. Once you’re out here in the wilderness, you’re building your own curriculum.

The bad news is, you don’t get a roadmap telling you where to go and what you’ll find along the way.

The good news is, there are no more required classes for you to take. Your path is your own now.

[1] Maybe this why some of us went to graduate school.

Party, splurge, and play: Unlessons book contents

Keep calm and party onHere is the draft Table of Contents for my unlessons book. In addition to the sections here, each Lesson chapter will have tools like lists of resources and exercises like quizzes and worksheets.

Subsections aren’t really in order, although the chapters and unlessons are in the order I’ve got for the moment. Subsections are listed as notes on what the content for that section will be, but I’m working on the actual subsection titles.

Have a thought? Am I missing some key, core idea? Comment away!


Introduction: Unlearning the rules

1. Chapter 1: Success
1.1. Grit: what it really takes to succeed
1.2. Goals, dreams, plans – make them big! (thank you, Avery)

2. Chapter 2: Unlessons
2.1. Unlesson: Take the required classes
2.1.1. School world: A set path to success with predetermined checklists
2.1.2. Work world: Find your own path
2.2. Unlesson: You’ll be graded on this
2.2.1. School world: Everything you submit gets graded
2.2.2. Work world: You often get very little direct, specific feedback
2.3. Unlesson: Only the best work gets an A
2.3.1. School world: Meritocracy
2.3.2. Work world: Done is better than great
2.4. Unlesson: Get the right answer
2.4.1. School world: Regurgitating what prof told you = right
2.4.2. Work world: No “right” exists; Good = persuasive arguments (& fulfilling expectations/needs)
2.5. Unlesson: Content matters
2.5.1. School world: What you’re thinking / effort matters
2.5.2. Work world: Whole context & presentation/sell matters
2.6. Unlesson: Show your work
2.6.1. School world: Write /present more to demonstrate quality
2.6.2. Work world: Shorter is better (and harder)
2.7. Unlesson: Close the book and work independently
2.7.1. School world: Individual assessment and projects vs. rarer group work
2.7.2. Work world: All work is group work
2.8. Unlesson: Don’t fail
2.8.1. School world: Failures don’t count/get you nowhere
2.8.2. Work world: Learn from failure; Taking risks is the only way to achieve greatness
2.9. Unlesson: You’ll need this later
2.9.1. School world: Advance your skills and use them
2.9.2. Work world: Be good at learning; Find a way to fill a niche and make yourself useful

3. Chapter 3: Lesson: Show Off
3.1. Promote yourself: Resumes and portfolios
3.2. The line between arrogance and self-promotion
3.3. While you’re showing off, ask questions. (learn about others, industry, job, etc.)

4. Chapter 4: Lesson: Gossip
4.1. Gossip about yourself: Online presence, Personal branding
4.2. Show AND Tell: Use SNS to promote your work/self
4.3. While you’re gossiping, listen (to others pov, ideas, thoughts, reactions)

5. Chapter 5: Lesson: Hang Out & Party
5.1. Come early, leave late (face time)
5.2. Go to events and dinners: Social bonds make work bonds/networks
5.3. While you’re hanging out, take notes. (keep track of what you learn, who they are, etc.)

6. Chapter 6: Lesson: Play
6.1. Hobbies, and how important it is do have other activities that matter
6.2. Spend time on non-work activities, “unproductive” things – especially those!
6.3. While you play, do your homework (invest in non-work people, relationships, causes)

7. Chapter 7: Lesson: Road Trip
7.1. Go places outside your comfort zone: Learn from people different than you
7.2. Read news/blogs/books by people who disagree with you
7.3. While you road trip, be respectful

8. Chapter 8: Lesson: Splurge
8.1. It’s only money: Managing it is more important than earning it
8.2. Spend less anyway: Reduce the Stuff
8.3. While you splurge, take care of yourself (insurance, good choices, etc.)

9. Chapter 9: Final Thoughts and Advice
9.1. Work your network
9.2. Develop resources and skills continually
9.3. Do it anyway (even if you don’t have a job doing it)
9.4. Remember the power (and perils) of EGO
9.5. Call your parental unit(s) and [clever phrase for siblings that encompasses friends]

Unlearn from school – Preface

This is the start of the preface of my book about unlearning from school, beginning with the book-jacket bio. And a little gift for S.*


Rosa Mikeal Martey has been studying work and job-seeking for over 20 years. She has a Master’s degree in labor economics and a Ph.D. in communication, both from the University of Pennsylvania. After working as a strategic planner for the international advertising agency J. Walter Thompson, she spent some time as an entreprenurial development director for a non-profit in the northeast United States. She is currently an Associate Professor in the Department of Journalism and Media Communication at Colorado State University.


You’ve been in school pretty much your whole life. And in school, you learned a lot of things about what success is, what it feels and looks like, and how to get it. Sure, you may not always have followed those lessons exactly. Maybe you skipped a few classes, or maybe you did an assignment not quite the way the instructor asked you to. Maybe breaking the rules worked for you sometimes, maybe it didn’t. But the world you were living in, a school world, was your point of reference. It set the boundaries, defined the Good and the Bad, told you the Right Answer, and gave you a system to work in or fight against. Whether you loved it or hated it, from the age of 5 you were taught a set of rules from school that helped you survive – maybe even thrive.

Now it’s time to unlearn those rules because – sorry – most of that stuff is useless now.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that school taught you useless rules for school. And not everything school taught you is useless by any means. Some pretty helpful things are in those rules. Ask questions. Listen. Take notes. Do your homework. Be respectful. Take care of yourself.  The school rules you learned did a pretty good job of laying out what you needed to succeed back then.

But the work world is a different world, with different rules, and most of the rules school taught you about success don’t work on the job market. That’s why you’re reading this book.  You need to unlearn those old rules.

I’m going to tell you that there is no clear path of progression from grade to grade. That what you did in school, internships, and summer jobs isn’t why people will hire you. I’ll break it to you that the most successful work isn’t about quality. That getting to the page limit actually means you didn’t work hard enough. I’ll explain why you shouldn’t close the book and work independently. I’ll let you down easy about the fact that getting the right answer isn’t the point. And I’ll tell you what you already know: failing isn’t actually a sign you’re doing the wrong thing.

Okay, well, I’m a professor. I can’t just leave you like that. So after you unlearn the old rules, I’ll talk about a few things you can learn. And yes, they will be on the test. But I promise you can get an A if you try. It just might not quite be the A you were thinking of.

* If I  were  extraordinarily clever, I would write a book about how going from school to the work world is like playing WoW, but that might be a little too clever.

Unlearning School

victorianGradI have recently started working on a book for graduating college seniors about that confusing and oft-overwhelming transition from the World of School to the World of Work.

I’ve decided to post segments here for your thoughts and feedback as I write. These are drafts, so any and all of your insight is welcome.

The book focuses on what school teaches us about how the world works – about how school defines success, failure, progress, achievement. It explains that those rules – the school rules – look pretty different in the work world.

And to go from the world of school rules to the world of work rules takes some getting used to – and some un-learning of lessons.

I still don’t have a title, but my hope is that students will find some ideas in these pages that will make moving into the world of work a bit less daunting.

Blogging Whatfor

I have been talking a lot about blogging recently, not just because I teach it in my classes, but also because I have been singing its praises in helping stuffy academics like me get more practice writing. Not everything is good fodder for a journal. But at the end of the day, academics are Writers, with all the concomitant foibles and joys. So more writing, specifically more blogging, is good for us.

Blogging for me started as a way to keep track of my thoughts and reactions to entering a new world (of Warcraft, specifically), which felt a lot more appealing than keeping files of field notes. My blog later became a place where I could put down ideas that might someday become the basis for research – or not – as well as keep myself writing on a regular basis.

If you follow my blog at all, though, you’ll know that sometimes I post quite regularly, and sometimes… well, let’s just say it’s been a year since my last post, and that’s not the first time I’ve lapsed so substantially. So although this blog makes for a good motivator to continue honing my mad writing skillz, it is not always…. consistent.

But there’s another aspect of blogging that has been on my mind of late, prompted by a book chapter that I have to have to have to finish, like, yesterday. That aspect of blogging is its ability to help me find my voice – my writing voice. Book chapters are more flexible in terms of expected writing style, and the chapter I’m finishing up uses a voice closer to my blog writing than my journal writing.

I do a lot of report writing and formal journal article writing, which tends to get me thinking mostly about results, existing literature, arguments, and the like. But dammit, Jim, I’m a writer! And writers need a voice. That’s not from me, that’s from this terrific article. The wise advice that hit me hard from that piece was, “Find a voice; don’t just ‘get published.'”

For me, journal articles and reports don’t bring out that voice. Maybe that’s because I’m writing more quantitative pieces which really do have a sort of formula I’m supposed to follow; maybe it’s because those pieces are so formal that I remove all personality to fit the standard form; maybe it’s because I just don’t have the nerve to write in anything but bland academic-speak. But whatever the reason, I haven’t invested as much in developing a true Voice of My Own.

So back I trot to my WoW Musings, mindful of my voice, and dedicated to findings ways to bring that voice into more than just this cozy little corner of the blogosphere. Maybe I’ll even get some of that voice published one of these days.

Being Naughty from Being Good

The danger of walking a few hours a day is you can get a wee bit complacent with  the other part of getting healthy: eating well. Last night I had popcorn for dinner, which is so not healthy. Today, I had chocolate mint chip ice cream for lunch. Even worse.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking you’re doing really well using that hard earned will-power to do work, walk, feed the kid, keep the dishes clean…. and so you deserve – deserve, dammit! – ice cream, or a burger, or truffle cheese fries. Sometimes it feels more like using up will-power reserves, and at the end of the day we just don’t have any left for choosing a salad, or going Paleo, or skipping dessert.

But that’s the trap of modern American body image and diet crap. It’s a killer. No, instead we must re-frame and think of all these things as making the salad or the skipped dessert easier because they all move us that much farther down a healthy path. It’s not that avoiding bread is depriving ourselves. It’s that picking almonds instead is giving ourselves a gift, treating ourselves to something wonderful for our health.

Workin’ on it.