Monday, September 03, 2007

Letters of recommendation (apart from profs)

mshea wrote:

I never formed any strong relationships with undergraduate profs. Now I’m 5 years out of school. Who should I ask for letters of recommendations? I’m a reporter and have several editors that know my writing well and a friend (Ph.D FSU, published poet) who teaches creative writing and has informally looked at my stuff. In Tom's books, though, I think he advises against using editors and friends.

Tom does advise you to choose as recommenders teachers who "speak the language of teachers" so that they can comment on your academic ability and promise, given that "almost all the members of the [admissions] committee are teachers" (MFA Handbook 66). He provides the following list of things recommenders should comment on: academic promise, ability to work within a writing community, reliability, ability to get along well with others (MH 67). But, mshea, can't your poet friend and editors also speak to that? You have to work with what you've got--and although Tom says that "at least two out of three" recs should come from teachers, he further notes that the third could come from someone who knows what you've been up to between your undergrad and grad years (MH 69).

If you have no college profs to recommend you, consider whether you have anyone from an adult writing program/workshop that you took between your undergraduate years and now who could discuss your abilities within a classroom or workshop setting; if not, you probably have to ask those people you mentioned to provide the admissions committee with specific evidence of (to re-hash Tom's points in the order they were presented): (a) your committment to learning the craft of writing, (b) your being able to take good criticsm and give good criticism, (c) your ability to follow through on work that you promise and meet deadlines, (d) your character fitting that of a helpful and likeable classmate/student.

Tom does cite a paragraph-long quote from Peter Turchi who directs the MFA program at Warren Wilson in which Turchi says that "letters of recommendation from friends, colleagues, agents, editors, and acquaintances are not influential." But what I don't get is, why should they not be influential if these people are able to speak reliably and convincingly about the above? I don't think any rec letter should be labeled as "good" or "bad" based on what category the recommender falls under--what matters is whether the letter provides the meat that it should.

Finally, note that none of these points concerning what recommenders should talk about has to do with whether they "know your writing well" or have "looked at your stuff"; a recommender shouldn't get too caught up in raving about the candidate's writing because the committee will judge that for themselves. I think a sentence or two about its quality would be fine--but, as Tom says, "if they don't like your poems, then a letter saying how talented you are is not going to convince them otherwise" (MH 67). Get sincere recommenders who can provide strong evidence that you fulfill those points in bold, and you'll be on the right track.


Mike Valente said...

I'm a strong advocate for taking writing classes offered by the local colleges & universities, especially for ppl several years removed from undergrad and/or were not CW/English majors. These classes give you the opportunity to 1. work on your writing 2. experience the workshop environment and 3. possibly to ask the prof/instructor (kindly) to write a recommendation.

Obviously, the writing sample is critical and the most important part of the application that they use to judge you as a writer & applicant. My gut feeling is that the next two things that they try to ascertain from the application are 1. what the candidate will gain from the program and 2. what the candidate can bring to the program. These things can be inferred from the personal statement and letters of recommendation.

That said, my advice would be to have at least one of your recommendors be able to comment on your performance and work ethic in a team-oriented environment, either a writing instructor, your boss, a coach or whatever. Okay, so I've never served on the admissions committee of an MFA program and I've only attended (just starting), one MFA program. Therefore, my views and opinion are limited, so take what I say lightly. Any other current or former students that can offer or add something?

mshea said...

Good points all around. Thanks,

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