Profs: Writing letters is ‘like flossing your teeth’

auren Pond

Medill School of Journalism Prof. David Nelson had two days to write a recommendation letter for a former Medill student. The alumnus was applying to be the public relations director for the 2004 Olympics in Greece. Nelson didn’t hesitate to write the letter, even under the time constraints. The student got the job.

“I take great pride in my students,” Nelson said. “When they need a nudge to help them reach the next level, it makes me feel good.”

Recommendation letters are an essential part of applying for internships and jobs because they talk about the strengths that employers consider, said University Career Services Director Lonnie Dunlap. The most popular NU professors sometimes more than 100 letters every year — sometimes on tight deadlines — but professors said they’re happy to write.

“It’s part of the job,” said Nelson, who has taught at NU for 30 years and wrote multiple letters for 26 students this winter. “It’s like waking up and brushing and flossing your teeth. It’s something you do.”

Students ask for recommendation letters for graduate school, jobs, fellowships, study abroad and programs, such as the Peace Corps, professors said. The content and length of the letters are tailored to the schools and programs where students are applying.

French Prof. Stella Radulescu generally writes letters for students who want to study abroad. The letters and forms she completes are simple assessments of a student’s personality, language skills and ability to make progress in another country, she said. She writes between five and 10 letters each quarter. Each one takes between 15 and 30 minutes.

“I feel like sometimes students are so grateful, then I feel good that I can help them,” she said.

Students often ask medieval literature and religion Prof. Barbara Newman for letters to graduate schools in her field, she said. Her letters are usually two to three single-spaced pages and can take an entire day to prepare, she said.

Recommendations can be stressful, especially with grading and other activities to do, Newman said. Still she added that she realizes the importance recommendations are for her students’ futures.

“I wouldn’t have the job I have now if I hadn’t had all the teachers and colleagues who had been willing to write letters on my behalf,” she said. “When I write letters for my students, that’s a way of giving back.”

Radulescu stressed requesting letters in advance. Keeping in touch with the professor is also important, Nelson said.

“At the time you have to write the recommendation, it’s like writing a letter home, because you know them,” he said.

A recommendation for study abroad in Verona, Italy, fell through for Medill senior Megan DeFelice, and she asked journalism Prof. Mary Ann Weston for a letter only a week before it was due.

“She probably felt a little rushed,” DeFelice said. “In an ideal situation, I probably would have asked for it about a month in advance.”

Students are appreciative of professors’ efforts, said Prof. Margaret Sinclair, director of undergraduate studies in French. She writes about 12 letters each quarter, she said.

“It usually involves some flowers or a box of chocolates afterward,” she said.

Reach Lauren Pond at [email protected]