Salt Lake confidential

Don’t be afraid to ask.

That’s what many professors say to students when it comes to the sometimes daunting task of asking for letters of recommendation.

“I think we have an obligation as professors to know our students, and no student should be afraid to ask. If they are, there’s something not right with that kind of relationship,” said Patrick McMurtry, professor of mechanical engineering and associate dean of the Graduate School.

But even with an endorsement like that, not every student finds the question an easy one to ask.

“I think it helps when you get more into your department, but it can still be hard. You never know what to expect,” said Tiffany Harris, a senior majoring in communication.

Nick Attebury, a junior majoring in computer science, has never asked a professor for one, but when he does, he said he’d like to see what he or she has to say.

“It’s a private thing, but it would be nice to know what they think,” he said.

For as many different reasons as letters of recommendation are written, views on how confidential they should remain are just as varied.

Political science professor Robert Benedict never allows students to view the final product, but he asks for input on specific traits students would like highlighted.

“I think there’s a possibility that they’ll disagree with what you say,” he said.

Benedict said that most of the letters he writes are for students seeking to continue their education in graduate schools-some of which have detailed requirements about what they expect from letters of recommendation.

“If you [allowed students to view the letter], it would be viewed as improper. If a student doesn’t feel comfortable signing a privacy policy, I don’t feel comfortable writing them a letter,” he said.

However, the U’s Graduate School doesn’t have specific requirements when it comes to letters of recommendation, though individual departments might.

“Letters are asked for by most of the departments, but the way they require them varies. We don’t have any set policy on that,” McMurtry said.

Nobody has ever asked professor of mathematics Aaron Bertram to read one of the letters of recommendation he has written, and he wouldn’t show it anyway.

“I consider them private,” he said.

Dean of Students Stayner Landward says he usually writes about 60 to 70 of them a year, and spends up to an hour on each one of them.

Landward writes letters for everything from scholarships and internships to employment opportunities and graduate school applications.

“Some are very simple, and some aren’t, but each time I write a letter, my credibility and the U’s is on the line,” he said.

Landward’s no-look policy isn’t as stringent as Benedict’s or Bertram’s, but it depends on the position, he said.

“I’ll have a student look at them on occasion if I’m having any difficulty in getting the right match between what they’re looking for and what I’m saying,” he said.

One thing all professors do agree on is the importance of establishing a relationship with students outside of the classroom.

“I’m not going to write a letter if it can’t be genuinely positive, but writing a letter is a personal thing and I’m not comfortable sharing those personal issues publicly,” McMurtry said.

Landward says he feels much the same way.

“Every letter I write needs to be accurate, fair and representative, or otherwise they’re meaningless. I’ll say no to students when I don’t know them well enough to write a credible letter,” he said.

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