MLA Guidelines on Letters of Recommendation

The Executive Council approved the following guidelines at its February 2014 meeting.

Suggestions for Graduate Students Applying for Assistant Professorships and Lectureships

  • Talk to your dissertation director(s) and committee members about your plans to go on the job market well before mid-September, when the MLA Job Information List begins to post jobs for the academic year. Establish a timeline for the application process and convey the deadlines to your letter writers as soon as you know them. Learn what documents and how many completed dissertation chapters your advisers will need to see in order to write a thorough and accurate letter and make sure to provide these materials a month to six weeks before the application deadline. If a deadline is approaching and a letter has not been submitted, remind your recommender of the deadline.

  • Talk to your letter writers about how you and they will handle the logistics of submitting the letters, especially if the positions you are applying for use different methods to receive documents. See “Suggestions for Directors of Graduate Study and Faculty Members Who Serve on Graduate Student Placement Committees” below for more on submitting materials through applicant tracking systems.

  • Talk to your dissertation adviser or graduate director about how many letters you are requesting, and from whom. The MLA recommends no more than three or four letters for most candidates applying for assistant professor or lecturer positions. (Two or three are required for most fellowship and postdoctoral competitions.) The general rule is that each member of your dissertation committee should be in a position to write a knowledgeable letter about your accomplishments. If, however, you are in a situation where letter writers who are commenting on your scholarly writing cannot observe you teach or if there is one person in your department who regularly observes and writes about graduate student teachers, then your dossier should include a separate teaching letter. If you are applying for positions that require competence in more than one language or area of scholarly inquiry, then you may also need an extra letter.

  • If you are going on the job market for a second or third time, be sure to contact all of your recommenders the summer before you plan to update your dossier. Provide your recommenders with detailed information about what you have written, published, and taught since you were last on the market. If you have new publications, send copies of them. Your recommenders will then have time to think carefully about what kind of updating might be appropriate.

Suggestions for Faculty Members Who Write Letters of Recommendation

  • If you direct a number of dissertations or serve regularly on dissertation committees, consider providing print or electronic guidelines about what you typically need from graduate students in order to write them a well-informed letter of recommendation. Be clear about when you need to see their materials in order to send (or upload) your letter to meet their first application deadline. (See “Suggestions for Directors of Graduate Study and Faculty Members Who Serve on Graduate Student Placement Committees” below for issues raised by applicant tracking systems, which are used by many postsecondary educational institutions.)

  • If you are directing a student’s dissertation, make every effort to observe him or her teach an undergraduate class. If a student is on a nonteaching fellowship or if your schedule doesn’t permit you to visit a student’s classes, consider inviting her or him to teach one of your undergraduate classes, or a part of one. Consider also setting aside time to talk to graduate students who have not had much teaching experience in their major academic field about how they would make a syllabus for a course in that field. In the current market, graduate students benefit from having at least one recommendation from a faculty member who knows enough about the student’s teaching and scholarly work to be able to draw connections between the two areas of competence. If you haven’t seen the student teach, are there sets of undergraduate evaluations from writing or literature courses that you could read and perhaps quote from in your letter?

  • If one of your recommendees has a disability, talk with him or her before you write your letter. Some students would prefer that you disclose their disability, while others prefer that you not mention it. (For a balanced discussion of this topic, see Amy Vidali, “Rhetorical Hiccups: Disability Disclosure in Letters of Recommendation,” Rhetoric Review 28.2 [2009]: 185–204.)

  • The MLA recommends that faculty letters for job candidates be two to three pages long. Whatever their length, letters should offer a detailed and engaging statement about the candidate’s qualities and accomplishments as a scholar and, if possible, as a teacher. Lengthy descriptions of the student’s intellectual project(s) should not form the bulk of the letter. Such descriptions are often perceived as competing with those in the student’s own application letter; that document, by convention, is approximately two pages long and covers the student’s research. In addition, faculty letters longer than three pages put a burden on those who read large numbers of dossiers.

Suggestions for Members of Hiring Committees, Department Chairs, and Deans Who Oversee Departmental Hiring Protocols

  • The MLA recommends that hiring committees set a clear limit of three to four letters in job ads for assistant professor positions. Ads that contain phrases like “send at least three letters of recommendation” can easily be interpreted as signifying that having more than three letters is desirable. Hiring committees should discuss how many letters they really need to assess a candidate for a particular job. Some committees searching for an assistant professor with competence in disparate fields or in multiple languages may wish to set a higher limit on letters (e.g., five). But in the light of the time it takes to write and to read careful letters, the MLA urges those who write job ads to consider the benefits, to faculty members and to applicants new to the job market, of restricting the number of letters requested.

  • Consider whether the committee needs to see all letters for all applicants at the first stage of selection. Some faculty readers of dossiers don’t read letters of recommendation carefully, or at all, until the applicant is at the semifinalist or finalist stage. Other faculty readers rely on recommendations in making initial decisions about candidates. The expected size of your applicant pool could be one factor in your department’s decision about whether to request letters up front. In the United Kingdom, reference letters are normally solicited only for finalists in a junior job search, and this practice has been adopted by some institutions of higher learning in the United States. Moreover, some academic institutions in the United States no longer require letters of recommendation at any stage of the hiring process; instead, they require contact information for three to four references and arrange to speak with them if the candidate becomes a finalist. Finally, consider the mailing or electronic-submission costs graduate student applicants will incur under your current procedures.

  • If your college or university has its own applicant tracking system, it will increase the burden on letter writers and applicants, who may have to negotiate a different system for each institution. Consider discussing these challenges with your department chair, your dean, and perhaps members of the upper administration so they can consider them in future decisions about how to receive application materials.

Suggestions for Directors of Graduate Study and Faculty Members Who Serve on Graduate Student Placement Committees

  • Consider requiring all graduate students in your department who are going on the job market for the first time to submit their materials for review well before mid-September, when the MLA Job Information List begins to post jobs for the academic year.

  • Consider having the graduate director or a faculty member helping with placement review letters of recommendation for technical errors (e.g., typographic errors, last year’s date, discrepancies in statements about when a student will complete his or her degree, etc.) and for appropriateness to particular institutions.

Suggestion for Administrators of Applicant Tracking Systems

  • Consider removing automatic word or character limits for recommendations. While suggesting a maximum length for letters (e.g., no more than two or three pages) is helpful for both writers and readers, imposing a word or character limit may require recommenders to spend time revising letters at the last minute.