Friday, November 20, 2015

Advice: promoting an applicant

So I find myself in the in-many-ways-enviable position of recommending a terrific student for admission to doctoral programs. This is a student whose application I feel good about in every way, including the whole what-if-there-isn't-a-job-at-the-other-end part (among other things, the student is older, with lots of work and life experience).

And it turns out that, at one of the programs to which s/he is applying, I have a valuable contact: an eminent senior scholar whom my student would be very interested in working with. I'm aware that reaching out to such people on behalf of one's students is A Thing One Does, and it's something I want to do for my student. . . but I'm feeling a bit stumped by the genre, especially given the nature of my own relationship with Eminent Senior Scholar.

If this were truly a friend, I'd probably just drop him or her a brief note saying, "Hey, I have this once-in-a-lifetime student who's applying to your program to work in your field, and I think you'll find them as impressive as I do. I'd love it if you could keep an eye out for their application."

But this scholar and I are only friendly in the been-on-some-panels-together kind of way. S/he has been extraordinarily warm and gracious to me, but we're not close. I'm also a bit of a fangirl, and s/he is the kind of person likely to review my book--or my next book, or write a letter for my promotion file--and that's making me really overthink the degree of familiarity I can assume or the tone I should take.

Obviously, I'm writing a letter for my student's application that will go into detail about all the wonderful, extraordinary things s/he has done and why the program should admit immediately if not sooner. . . but should I recapitulate some of that information? How much?

Friends, if you've either written or received emails of this sort, I'd appreciate all the advice you can give me about this genre: length, content, tone. I want to help my student put the best possible foot forward (and avoid looking like a freaky weirdo myself).


nicoleandmaggie said...

"Hey, I have this once-in-a-lifetime student who's applying to your program to work in your field, and I think you'll find them as impressive as I do. I'd love it if you could keep an eye out for their application."

is generally pretty much what they look like. In econ. Which may be different. Also usually a sentence about contacting you if they want any more info.

Flavia said...

So. . . you're saying that I'm overthinking it?

You're probably right. But I'd love to hear from anyone else with any additional thoughts.

(I'm also curious about how effective this kind of thing actually is, though I'm sure it can't hurt, especially for students coming from schools with no national name recognition. My only equivalent experience has been being contacted by friends and acquaintances about their grad student/recent-PhD job applicants. That's never happened when I've actually been on the search committee or in a position to do much--but those are definitely people whose names I learned and whose careers I later followed with interest.)

Comradde PhysioProffe said...

Just write them a brief couple sentence email giving them a heads up to look out for the application.

Dame Eleanor Hull said...

Is the person even on the admissions committee? I suppose if I got such a message I could mention to the DGS that I would like to see the applicant's materials, or find out who is on the admissions committee and forward an e-mail. But it all depends on how this person's department works.

Historiann said...

I agree with everyone else, esp. Nicoleandmaggie and CPP. Keep it brief and to the point, and don't overthink it (as you said yourself.)

Also: WHY is this such an issue for you? You're tenured, on your second job. You know the person you're writing to, so no long intros or extended discussions necessary. I always appreciate hearing from an applicant's mentors so that (as Dame Eleanor said above) I can keep an eye out for their application, even if I'm not on the grad studies committee.

Susan said...

Also, just to add: when you write such a note, you are in a sense saying "Honest, this student really is as good as I say ze is and my writing to you means that if I'm wrong, I know it will affect how you think of me." The year I entered grad school, one of my classmates who got a whopping fellowship crashed and burned very quickly, and I know that my advisor basically said, "I'm not believing anything this person's mentors say."

To put this another way, what you say when you send such an email is, this is not just letter of rec hyperbole. It's real. So don't overthink it.

hypatia cade said...

At least in our department, at the PhD level, applications are circulated directly to potential mentors for comments - so applications are only reviewed by the most relevant content experts, not a general committee. We don't admit anyone without an appropriate content expert as mentor for the chosen area of study (though students CAN change mentors later). Occasionally the person assigning the circulations messes up though so knowing to look for an application can be critical to someone getting admitted.

Kate said...

Having done this from both sides: yes, write the note just as nicoleandmaggie suggest. It really does help (and certainly can't hinder) - admission committees with limited places often, for example, like to check in to be sure the student is serious about program X as opposed to program Y. But be prepared, if the student ends up being a top pick, to end up being asked to pose as pimp - last year I got lots of "could you suggest things that might lure Student here as opposed to there?" for my once-in-a-lifetime wonder, and had to give myself a stern talking-to to back off and resist meddling at that stage.

Renaissance Girl said...

This is my 11th year on the search committee, fourth as chair. I get a letter like this every once in a while from an academic acquaintance/friend, and they look pretty much just as you/CPP/nicoleandmaggie have outlined here. Totally persuades me to consider the application with greater care when I know that the recommendation isn't just standard letter of rec praise.

Flavia said...

Thanks, all--this is really helpful. I especially appreciate the anecdotes!


I think Susan's comment gets at why I'm overthinking this. I don't teach at a doctoral institution. I've never taught doctoral students or sat on a doctoral program's admissions committee. And though I did teach Ivy Leaguers many moons ago, none (to my knowledge) were grad school bound. So I don't know what the average application looks like, or--in any detailed way--how impressive the competition is.

In some ways that doesn't matter; I'm 100% sure this student would succeed anywhere that s/he got admitted, and I suspect would outperform a lot of more conventional admits. But I don't know what assumptions, prejudices, etc., attach to less conventional candidates. And I want to do this right.

Tony Grafton said...

I am at an Ivy and read a lot of applications every year, as we all do. The admissions committee rejects about half of the applications that come in and circulates the rest to specialists, who read and rank them and make specific requests for those they'd like to see accepted. Then the committee makes the decision. A lot of applications follow a common pattern: Ivy or Ivy-like honors BA, senior thesis prize, MPhil Oxford/Cambridge/London or DAAD/Fulbright. The individuals who offer those credentials are quite different, as becomes clear when you read the writing samples and letters, and we certainly don't take all or most of them. But it does make for formidable competition. In writing for a student who comes from outside this charmed circle, the most important thing you can do is to describe his/her abilities and accomplishments in the most vivid detail you can summon--and to be sure, as the Ivy mentors will, that the writing samples are as sharply edited as they can be. Nothing can make the playing field absolutely level, but that will help a great deal.