If I am asked to write a letter, the academic areas on which I comment are the ones that I teach, namely music theory and composition. But, as you can see in the list below, professors are often asked to rate students in a surprisingly-large number of areas that go far beyond specific academic disciplines, and so I thought it might be useful to list these areas, and, more generally, provide information on the evaluation process for anyone that may wish to request such a letter at any point in their future.
If you are in a Bachelor of Music programme and there is even a remote chance that you might apply to graduate school upon completing your degree, today's post may have some useful information for you. And, if you have no interest in this topic, I promise to get back to composition-related topics in my next post!
Asking for a reference letter
• Don’t be shy about asking a professor to write reference letters; it is a part of our job, like correcting/grading, office hours, extra help for students that seek it, committee work, research/composition/performing, and of course, teaching.
• Be aware, however, that it takes time – for me, typically about 1-2 hours – to write a thorough reference letter.
Why does it take so long?
→ Part of that time is spent going through a student’s transcript carefully (which I request from the student), reviewing how the student did in my courses (which involves opening the spreadsheet files for every course taken with me in order to see the student’s results in all parts of the course evaluation scheme), and ranking that student’s final mark in relation to the class (e.g., 3rd out of 34 students), because some graduate schools ask for that information, and if they don’t, I usually provide it anyway.
→ Time is also spent listing all of the positive attributes I can think of for that student, particularly those that I believe would be relevant to studying composition or theory at the graduate level.
→ I also list any weaknesses or concerns I have about the student, because admissions committees want a balanced and honest assessment; if I describe a student in only positive terms, but the transcript reveals that the student has a 75% average over the most recent 1-2 years, then it seems unlikely that an admissions committee would take my letter seriously; a B+ average is nothing to be ashamed of, but it’s not an A average, and, in my opinion, a professor's recommendation letter should expand on the evidence found in a student's transcript, without making claims that are unsubstantiated in the transcript.
What Student Attributes are Evaluated?
→ Professors are often asked to rate, and comment on, specific personal attributes or character traits, such as:
- Ability – All around
- Ability to work under pressure
- Ability to work independently/Willingness to take responsibility for learning
- Academic potential
- Academic preparation/Demonstrated academic ability
- Communication skills – Oral
- Communication skills – Written
- Curiosity – Willingness to explore new approaches, ideas, particularly those that may fall outside the student’s comfort zone
- Intellectual capacity
- Likelihood that my institution would accept the student, if we had a comparable programme
- Likelihood that the student will complete the degree
- Organization - Planning
- Originality/Willingness to “think outside the box”
- Research ability
- Response to constructive criticism
- Teaching ability (if known)
- Teamwork (work well in a group)
Universities typically ask for a letter, in addition to asking the professor to rate the student in a number of categories, as above, but no university with which I am familiar asks for the student to be assessed in every category listed above; the above list is compiled from a variety of different universities' lists. Also, some universities have comment boxes in their on-line recommendation forms that allow professors to add a sentence or two explaining our rating in that particular category.
I have no idea how much weight is placed on this aspect of the evaluation process – I suspect that it matters, but perhaps not as much as the student’s transcript, composition portfolio, and the recommendation letter, but that’s just my guess. At the very least, however, these categories tell us something about what graduate schools value in prospective students.
→ How would you assess your level in each of the above categories? Most people have at least a few weak areas; if you can identify your own, I encourage you to work at them so that they become strengths.
How to request a letter
When requesting a letter from a professor, give them lots of lead time, and provide all necessary information. More specifically:
- Make your request at least two weeks in advance, because of the time it takes to write these letters. If this is not possible for some reason, then at least one week in advance, but be aware that professors are generally pretty maxed-out in terms of demands on their time, and if you don’t give us enough time, we may not be able to write the letter you request.
- Make your request in writing, as well as in person (if feasible). The reason for this is that I don’t necessarily remember every request, but if you put it in an E-mail, then I have something to remind me. Confirming this request in person is mostly a social nicety, but it may also give you a sense of the degree to which the professor is willing to write you a positive letter.
- If you are asked to include a composition portfolio, ask your composition teachers for their opinions on what to include, and make as many of the changes/improvements suggested by your instructor as possible. If applying for a theory master's and they require the submission of a theory essay, ask your theory teachers for suggestions and corrections on any essay you plan to submit.
- Provide the professor with an up-to-date transcript if you can, for reasons described above. The transcript can be a series of screen shots taken on your computer from your “university self-service” portal, or a PDF of the actual transcript.
- Provide a list of every course you took with the professor, and the semester in which you took that course.
- List any relevant achievements that might strengthen your case, e.g., Senior Rose Bowl Winner, Kiwanis Festival of (what region or city), Gower Band Terra Nova Competition Winner, etc., with the date(s) of the awards. You could include non-musical achievements as well, e.g., cycled from St. John’s, NL, to Victoria, BC, April-August, 2014... If I think they reflect strengths in your character, I might mention them. And yes, one of our students did this!
- Indicate in writing every school for which you’d like a letter.
- Include the submission deadlines for each school.
- Indicate in writing the specific graduate programmes to which you are applying (e.g., MA in music theory, MMus in composition, etc.).
Most schools allow professors to submit their letters electronically; I much prefer this, so if that’s an option, please choose it. I would guess most professors find E-submissions most convenient, but double check with the professor to see if they prefer to submit the old-fashioned way (i.e., a hard copy via "snail mail").
On the pros and cons of “Gentle Reminders”
To the best of my knowledge, universities automatically send applicants an electronic confirmation message every time they receive a recommendation letter for that student (UPDATE: Maybe it's a glitch in their systems, but they occasionally don't, according to a student who just contacted me… However, I think they are all supposed to do this). If the deadline is near, and you have not received such a notice, here’s what I suggest:
Send the professor a “friendly reminder,” or “gentle nudge” a few days before the submission deadline . For professors, work life tends to be pretty hectic all semester, but particularly so towards the end of a semester. Also, if you have, say, eight students who each want three reference letters, that’s twenty-four references; that's a lot of references, and it is possible to miss some. Not only that, but E-mail is a somewhat inefficient way to communicate, in that every day our inboxes are bombarded with SPAM and “noise” (messages that are not SPAM, but clutter up our in-boxes), so it is easy for the occasional legit E-mail (one that requires a response) to get buried among the debris.
I know that not everyone appreciates reminders, however – I remember as an undergraduate student seeing a professor in the hallway one day, and reminding him as politely as I could that the deadline for that letter was that day, only to have the professor blow up at me and proclaim, in an outdoors (not indoors) voice, “Look! If I say I’ll write you a reference letter, I’ll write you that g**d*** letter!”
It occurred to me that I might have destroyed any hope I had of going to graduate school, which I found rather daunting at the time. In today’s world, however, this kind of situation can be mostly avoided, because a thoughtfully-worded gentle reminder via E-mail is unlikely to elicit such a rude response. Speaking only for myself, I don’t mind them at all.
Trust the Process; How do you know the professor will write a good letter?
Speaking of daunting, it can feel a bit scary to request a letter and then trust that the professor has written a good letter. But, once your request has been made and the professor has agreed to recommend you, I would suggest trusting the process. In my opinion, a conscientious professor should tell you if they can’t write you a good letter, rather than agree to write a letter, and then write only negative things about you.
I have turned down requests to write recommendation letters on very few occasions — when I do, I always suggest that the students find other professors to write recommendation letters — for one of three reasons:
(i) The student's request came too close to the submission deadline. This is just a practical matter, not personal — requests often come at the busiest time of a semester, and there are times when I cannot set aside all the other work I have to spend two hours writing a letter that is due the day after I got the request. On the other hand, if I have recently written a letter for you, and you ask me to send it to more universities a day or two before a deadline, this is less problematic. It still can take a little more time than you might expect, particularly when the original letter needs to be modified in any way (such as if the original letter needs to be updated due to new information), but if I can do it, I will. But I'd still prefer 1-2 weeks notice, of course;
(ii) I don’t know the student well enough to say anything really positive about her/him; e.g., they only took one course with me, and it was a few years ago, and the student did not get a very good result in that course;
(iii) I know the student pretty well, but what I know isn't particularly positive… Perhaps they took several courses with me, but did not do very well in any of them, or they were rude/disrespectful on multiple occasions, or they skipped or were late for classes on multiple occasions, or they missed assignments or quizzes several times, or they committed academic dishonesty (the most common example of this is students collaborating with each other on assignments), or they generally disregarded my compositional advice and suggestions, etc.
To be clear, I’m not talking about an occasional disagreement with a student; these are not unusual in teaching, and I don't mind them, as long as the discussion is respectful. I’m referring more to an on-going and troublesome pattern of behaviour, which is extraordinarily rare; I can think of only about three such cases in thirty years of teaching.
The only time I recall declining a recommendation letter request for reason (iii) above involved a student who was extraordinarily sullen and rude. Don't get me wrong — I have encountered occasional instances of rudeness over the years, but this particular student really stood out from the rest (and not in a good way!), so much so that I actually had other students complain to me about the student’s behaviour. I was therefore surprised when the student asked for a recommendation — I'm not sure what sort of karmic good-will credits they thought they were accumulating while engaging in disrespectful behaviour — and so I suggested they would be better off asking someone else for a recommendation.
I don't hold grudges, or try to undermine students in any way. Had I decided to write a letter for this person, I would have found positive things to say about her/him (no matter who you are, I can usually find positive things to say about you, and this student was definitely smart and talented), but I would have also had to mention the problematic behaviours, which I felt would have sabotaged their chances of getting into a graduate programme, which is why I suggested they ask someone else.
Not sure about applying?
If you want to go to graduate school but are thinking that perhaps you ought not to apply because your marks aren't great, or your composition portfolio is not strong enough, I would suggest applying anyway, because you never know what the outcome will be. Sometimes, average students (IMO) have been accepted into master's programmes, while stronger students have been rejected. You don't know the circumstance or criteria used in the evaluation of your application; in some years, and in in some universities, you might be in competition with sixty other students; other years, you might only be in competition with eight other students for six available spots.
If graduate schools reject you, and are not willing to give up on your dream, find a way to turn this into a positive experience: Identify your weaknesses, work hard on improving in those areas, and then apply again. For composition, this might entail writing more pieces, perhaps longer and more substantial, perhaps for larger ensembles, or written more idiomatically for the instruments involved, or exploring new techniques, or providing more score detail, or better recordings, or just writing better pieces; most of us acknowledge that our early compositions are not as good as later compositions. If you had some weak results in music theory classes, explore the possibility of taking some of them again, this time working harder than you did previously, in order to gain a better understanding of the material.
Types of applicants
It is easiest students to write strongly-positive recommendations for students with these qualities:
- At or near the top of every composition course they took with me;
- Developing into very good composers — this is slightly different than #1, because a students course grade can be near the top of the composition class by getting full marks in all the extra-compositional assessment areas — excellent preparation, excellent contributions to class discussions, making the required number of thoughtful composition blog comments — while producing compositions that are pretty good (B+, A-), but not extremely good (A, A+);
- At or near the top of every theory course they took with me;
- Actively seek out new scores to study and new music to hear, and are excited by new discoveries;
- Willing to try new things without pre-judging them, and to embrace at least some of them;
- Do all their work on time with a minimum of excuses;
- Do more work than most other students;
- Respond well to compositional suggestions,
- Have a great attitude, and
- Participate regularly in class, and, in particular, they are good at giving constructive criticism to fellow students in our composition seminars.
However, I have had occasional composition students who are strong in all of these areas, meaning I would perhaps rate them as an 8 or higher in every category. Such students tend to be accepted into graduate programmes, provided they didn't only apply to the most selective universities, like Indiana or Yale (but our students have gone to Indiana University and Yale, for example, so why not you?).
What do you do if you are pretty good at composition, but pretty weak in, say, theory?
Most students are strong in some of the areas, but not all, and in many cases such students have been accepted into graduate programmes. Some students are very good at composition, but very weak in music theory; this can be a deal-breaker for some universities, since a graduate programme in composition usually involves music theory courses as well. I still recommend that such students apply to graduate schools, and, if not accepted, then consider doing extra work in music theory (like re-taking music theory courses to try to obtain better results), and then applying again in the following year. Realistically, however, this does not give students much of an opportunity to improve their standing in theory courses, since applications are often due by the end of the fall semester, which would give a graduating student only one semester in which to demonstrate an improvement.
If you are reading this in the early years of your academic studies, the clear conclusion to draw from this is to become as strong as possible in every possible area. It starts with taking every course seriously, and not falling into the trap of making excuses for poor results in, say, theory courses, such as, "this is nothing but a set of rules for OLD music; I want to make NEW music, and break any rules I wish!"
I will confess to speaking from experience on this matter. When I started taking music theory, I could not relate to it, and thought it had nothing to do with the music I wanted to write. Consequently, I failed grades 3 and 5 harmony at the Royal Conservatory of Music (RCM), and didn't do very well in grade 4 harmony either. After about two years of poor results at the RCM, I started studying privately with an excellent composition teacher, Dr. Sam Dolin, who made me redo music theory from the beginning all over again, and, while I resented it a bit at first, he made it interesting, fascinating, and relevant for me, and my love for music theory – which is, basically, learning how music works – has never abated. And yes, I got better at it.
You can get off to a bad start in something, and end up becoming very good at that thing; in my case I just needed a combination of a good teacher and an attitude readjustment.
This has become much longer than I anticipated, but if you have questions on anything relating to recommendation letters that I did not address in this post, please ask them in the "comments" section, and I'll try to respond.