How much for a recommendation letter?

At blogger Chris Marsh’s school in Scottsdale, Arizona, some teachers began charging for college recommendation letters, which were taking 60 to 80 hours of their time.

The first two letters per student are usually free, and the ones after that are five to ten dollars per letter — depending on the teacher.

Marsh, who doesn’t get that many requests, has no problem with teachers charging. However, someone complained and teachers were told they couldn’t take money for the letters. Most now write for free for the first students who ask, but draw the line when the burden is too great.

I have no problem with teachers telling students they’re too busy to say “yes” to every request. Or that they’re going to write one letter, with multiple photocopies, per student. However, charging money suggests that a larger fee would produce a more enthusiastic recommendation: “Brittani values education.”

My daughter’s high school had teacher-advisors. As I recall, they got several days off from teaching to do nothing but write college letters. That makes a lot of sense at schools where lots of students are applying to selective colleges and need recommendations.

Years ago, I was a judge for a student journalism contest. One applicant had done great work; her journalism teacher’s letter was glowing. Then we realized he’d sent the exact same letter for two other students. Not wanting to penalize her for her teacher’s laziness, we gave her an award. We also called the teacher to tell him never do that again, you idiot. Only phrased more nicely.

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Comments

  1. Miller T. Smith says:

    Here is the solution to such situations: Write LORs for students you truly wish to for your own reasons. All other requests are to be outright denied-as is your profession right.

    I was once told that I had to write LORs for every student who requested one. To prove the point I wrote letters to every student in my classes that said only this: I do/do not recommend for your program. This LOR was written by me as a requirement for continued employment by my principal.

    Well, as you can guess, the fit hit the shan. I was written up and I countered with a grievance. I refused to budge and it got up to the day before going in front of the BOE. The BOE blinked. The reason the union lawyer told me was the BOE didn’t want this to hit the news that teachers were being told they had to write LORs. The real reason the union lawyer told me was that under no circumstances can a government employee be forced to speak or write a governmentally approved opinion about anyone or anything. He cited the Supreme Court case on this.

    Now the system writes letters to the teachers begging us to write these letters “for the children.” I still write them, but ONLY for those children I truly have such an opinion…which is how it should always be.

  2. That makes no sense. The first letter takes all the work; all subsequent letters are reprints, and the checkboxes take trivial time. (Not to mention, of course, the problems should there by anyone poor in Scottsdale; the fact that the original blogger does not have a problem with it on this basis shocks me.) If the burden of writing the letters is excessive — and certainly my colleagues in core subjects could get overwhelmed by the process — that’s something the administration needs to address in terms of, e.g., days off, sub coverage, and writing workshops (there are plenty of honorable shortcuts that perhaps colleagues ought to be sharing with one another).

  3. Why are they writing multiple letters? Why not just write one per kid that the kid can send to all the colleges they are applying to?

  4. There are some interesting conflicts of interest here–and it’s a bit shocking that they did not occur to the teachers who started charging. Aside from the ethical consideraion of influence peddling, never a good thing, the teacher’s relationship with a student is within the realm of their employment by a district. To sell their knowledge of that student, in the form of a letter of recommendation, is to peddle something that is not theirs. Further probing might include whether the letter went out on school stationary, discussed the student’s school and classroom prowess, etc.

    Out in the blogosphere there is a teacher who came up with a similar idea to charge the doctor of a student who was performing an evaluation in connection with a learning disability evaluation. The teacher sent the doctor a bill for filling out forms about the student’s classroom performance. He thought that this was justified because the doc was charging for his/her services. This completely overlooked the fact that the teacher was only privy to this information as a result of a work relationship to the student, for which he was being paid.

    If there is an issue about the amount of time, or the appropriateness of writing student letters of recommendation, or anything else related to the work for which teachers are being paid (how little or much would not be the issue), these are things to be worked out between the employer and employee. Taking individual action, outside the work contract, to charge students is unethical. Miller Smith’s (non)solution is probably in a grey area, not to mention a passive aggressive move that takes out his work dissatisfactions on students.

  5. Miller T. Smith says:

    Andromeda,
    The issue isn’t how easy it is to print out the remaining letters. You can mail merge to do that and give one to every single student you have in one click and hand them all out by class in one day. The issue is do I think they deserve a LOR from me.

    Only a very few students get an LOR from me and I usually have it written before they even ask. Also, I write a sincere LOR that is personal and unique for that student.

    Here is an example of a LOR I just wrote:
    I am very pleased to recommend STUDENT NAME for you program in Dentistry. FIRST NAME is a remarkable student with unlimited potential and a very bright future. Not only has FIRST NAME distinguished herself in my Honors Chemistry class, she has also garnered the deep respect of the entire Science Department through which she has matriculated.
    FIRST NAME was the First Place winner of the 2007-2008 Bowie High School Science Fair. Her execution and presentation of her project were on par with what one would expect of a professional. She was also one of the top students in my honors classes which she accomplished by always being on time, submitting work ahead of time as a personal habit, and always striving for better even when she was already the best.
    FIRST NAME has gained the abiding respect of her other teachers in our Science Department. FIRST NAME’s 9th grade Honors Biology teacher, Ms. Sheikisha Jenkins, Lead Biology Instructor for Prince George’s County Public Schools and writer of the countywide Honors Biology curriculum is proud that she had FIRST NAME as her student. “Hard worker,” “diligent,” and “extremely intelligent” are but a few of the words Ms. Jenkins used to describe FIRST NAME.
    FIRST NAME is presently enrolled in Microbiology and Human Anatomy instructed by Dr. Cedric Rice, Ph.D. Dr. Rice could not be happier the have such a wonderful student. Dr. Rice considers FIRST NAME to be “one of the best students I have ever had,” and a student with “unlimited potential,” and “intense focus on her studies.”
    FIRST NAME has a cheerful and outgoing personality and is a delight to have in the classroom. I know that Ms. STUDENT NAME will be a credit to your institution and can only enhance the reputation of any program to which she is admitted.
    END LETTER

    As you can see, this is no form letter and I went to the trouble to talk with other teachers about the student. The letter is for a specific purpose to a specific program. I sat down with the student and interviewed her about what her needs were and told her explicitly what I though of her and what other teachers thought of her. She was then able to go to other teachers to get more LORs if she needed them.

    I sought quotes and approval to use those quotes from the other teachers in my school. This is a LOR, NOT the general garbage that is presently being tossed out by schools and teachers all over the U.S.

    If you have no desire to write an LOR from the heart and be able to be specific about a student then you have no business writing them at all. All you do by giving everyone a LOR is to make those LORs worthless.

    Make you LORs worth something.

  6. Cardinal Fang says:

    Many (most?) college applications require letters of recommendation from teachers. It’s appalling that teachers would charge for that: writing letters of recommendation is part of a high school teacher’s job and she should know it.

    Nowadays, with the Common Application for college, the teacher just writes one recommendation online for the student. It is filed with that student’s Common App (though the student is unable to read it), and the student can submit the recommendations of his choice with each college application. Not all colleges use the Common App, but a large number do.

    There are plenty of reasons that a student could be rejected from a college, but being unable to get teachers to write a letter of recommendation should never be one of them. That’s unfair.

  7. Maybe there is a new business here 🙂 http://www.rateyourstudents.com

  8. This is uncomfortably close to bribery. Most companies would fire a purchasing official who charged vendors to review their sales proposals. The federal government would certainly fire such an official, and probably prosecute him as well.

  9. Lightly Seasoned says:

    I’m in the middle of rec letter hell now. Selective colleges specifically ask for letters from English teachers, and these letters take a good deal of time to write — on top of my other duties. I would never charge (although a thank you note now and then would be NICE). I don’t think students or their parents realize the hours that go into these letters. Sometimes schools ask for something specific, so I need to do a couple of versions for a student, but the common app has made life much easier.

    I get one 55-minute period per day for all non-face-time teaching duties: that’s grading, planning, phone calls, entering grades, writing letters, going to meetings, completing paperwork, etc.

    I could say no, but I’ve been working hard for years to get these students ready for college — the letter is as extension of that effort for me.

  10. Miller T. Smith says:

    Cardinal Fang,
    What do you write about a student whom you would not recommend for anything? How about that student who cussed you all year long? A student who earned D’s and F’s and barely passed? Do they have a right to a LOR? May I write a highly negative LOR?

    An LOR is not part of a teacher’s job-it is a privilege you earn from that teacher and at the teacher’s pleasure and desire to do so.

  11. I’m a college prof, and I get hit up for LORs all the time – for med school, dental, PA, grad school, jobs…you name it.

    In some cases I’m happy to do it – the student deserves a good recommendation and it makes me happy to think of them getting into a good program.

    The problem comes when students who have in no way distinguished themselves from the “pack” come and ask me. When I ask them if there’s someone who might be more qualified, they sometimes say, “But they’re on the Admissions Committee!” or “but you’re the only faculty member who had me in more than one course!”

    I say “yes” to those letters, but I’m afraid I don’t always help the student much. I wish it was easier to turn down letters (and I have in a few cases where I could not, in good conscience, recommend the student at all), but I’m in a small department.

    I do have a blanket policy of turning down any “emergency” letters, as in “I didn’t realize I needed another letter until this week, can you have this in by Friday?” No. My time is more valuable than that and I am usually already scheduled that far in advance. (Besides which, it doesn’t bode well if someone’s so lackadaisical about something so important to their lives)

  12. MTS:

    As stated above, yes, the response to the request for a LOR is a part of a teacher’s job–in the sense that you are reporting on what you know about that student through your employment experience. Just as supervisors are limited by company policy with regard to employment recommendations.

    That said, I would certainly feel free to share with a poorly performing student that I would have little, if anything, positive to say about them in a letter, or that such a letter could at best damn with faint praise. At the secondary level, it would certainly be appropriate to share what other, perhaps better, options that a student might have (such as last year’s English teacher, a counselor, coach or teacher with whom one has a good relationship). The college application process is frequently the first time that a student has to go through the process of making a case for themselves. Injecting a bit of thought into the process is not a bad thing. Neither is NOT going straight to a four year college if one is coming up short on requisite qualifications and recommendations. A year or two at community college can provide a fresh slate to garner better relationships with the folks who can write letters. A year in employment or community service work can also help to build the experience, maturity and judgment that a college/program is looking for in a LOR.

  13. I think the education community will be the last to learn that Letters of Recommendation (LORs) for college prepared by high school faculty members serve no purpose and should be discontinued.

    C’mon, be honest…did you ever read a bad one? Despite varying length, style, content and writer’s effort…high school faculty LORs all basically say the same thing….”Take my student. He/she is wonderful.” Thus, they serve no valid purpose as a tool for distinguishing one student from another.

    I suppose colleges/universities will be loathe to admit this therebye keeping high school teachers busy for the rest of the millennium.

    For graduate studies, professional schools and employment positions, LOR’s may be useful only from the standpoint of WHO wrote them, not what they say because we all know ahead of time what they will basically say.

    LORs from recognized leaders of a profession, former employers, research project leaders, etc. become useful when the writer puts the recommendation into context, i.e. how does this person compare to others who have previously come down this path. These kinds of LORs coupled with a record of the student’s accomplishments provide some useful guidance in accepting/rejecting the applicant.

  14. Cardinal Fang says:

    MTS, if all the teachers where you teach have your policy, then the spectacularly good students will have no trouble getting letters of recommendation but what about the solid but not superstar students? Where are they to get their letters of recommendation, which are required for college applications?

    I’m not saying you should recommend a student about whom you have nothing good to say, but I do wonder about the middling students, who don’t stand out but who solidly do their work and behave in class.

  15. Miller T. Smith says:

    Cardinal Fang,
    If no teacher thinks them worthy of a LOR for admission to college, then one should take the hint.

    After my and other teacher’s problems with admin demanding that we write LORs for everyone and getting that thrown back in their faces, they have created a form LOR that they check off. Guidance also does those LOR forms as well. Teachers no longer are needed by most students.

    Seriously, if no one will give a student a LOR, then maybe the student should take that as what it means. They can always go through other pathways if they truly think themselves worthy of college. They just have no right to have others think them so.

  16. It’s part of the job. There is no requirement, that I know of, that the letter be long, or even complimentary. In my opinion, the best letters go directly from the teacher to the college, and remain confidential.

    With word processing, it should be possible to create a form letter applicable, with a little tweaking, to most students. Only the truly exceptional, or abominable, would need more effort. A teacher also shouldn’t be tracking down other teachers, and surveying their opinions.

  17. Mike Curtis says:

    My grades are my recommendations.

  18. Catch Thirty-Three says:

    I have never once asked for a Letter of Recommendation, and nor will I ever. I have been offered to have such Letters written on my behalf. And this was in college, not in high school, where I knew I had no chance in hell of getting a Letter of Recommendation.

    In my view, LORs are privileges that are earned, not a birthright.

  19. Cardinal Fang says:

    In the world of college admissions today, letters of recommendation are not an exalted privilege, but an admissions requirement. Colleges require them, so schools should require their teachers to write them. For free. It’s part of the job.

  20. Miller Smith says:

    LORs are NOT part of the job. Just where do you people get such a boneheaded idea? A LOR requirement is not in ANY public school teaching contract and would be an ethical violation for it to be so.

    Are you actually saying that you have a right to MY recommendation regardless of what I actually think of you? Are you daft? Such unmitigated gall is the attitude of moochers and entitled spoiled brats.

    You have a right to no more than what you paid for and by god you more than likely didn’t even come close to paying for what you had the right to in the first place.

    My recommendation belongs to me. It goes to whom I wish it to go to and no one else.

    Try this thought experiment: A public school teacher has refused to write your precious child a LOR. Do you have a legal case? What would be your theory for demanding the court to compel a *RECOMMENDATION* from that teacher?

  21. Miller Smith says:

    Parent2 said, “A teacher also shouldn’t be tracking down other teachers, and surveying their opinions.” Uh…why not?

    Jenkins was across the hall and Dr. Rice was next door. All of us have had the child or presently teach her. She is a remarkable student who just stands out in the crowd of other honors and AP students.

    They were more than glad to provide quotes and the child, parents, and college recruiter absolutely loved it. It made the LOR special and not that run of the mill garbage they always see.

    Strange idea you have there Parent2. You demand the right to an LOR but only one that is unremarkable and plain. You and others here prefer a form letter. How strange. Is that the best you expect?

  22. Nels Nelson says:

    When it was time for me to go out into the real world, I thought it would be a good idea to get a recommendation letter for the summer job I’d had all through high school and college. I knew my boss was very busy and would probably never get around to it. So I wrote it up myself, on letterhead and ready to go, and all she had to do was read it and sign it. Seems like a good solution for these high schoolers as well.

  23. Miller:

    You seem to be saying that a LOR is some kind of glowing endorsement (which makes the issue of paying for them even more odious). I don’t see it that way. I have written endorsements that said no more than what I thought a person was capable of, or good at. Whether that fits well with what the recipient (the employer or program) is looking for is up to them to determine.

    I have never had the advantage of working under a contract, so my judgement has tended to be bounded more by professional standards, as well as the policies and procedures of my employer. I cannot imagine, however, that somewhere in that great vast general contract that has been hashed out over time between your union representatives and your district that there isn’t some clause that pertains to appropriate reporting on students. It may not specify in words “letter of recommendation,” however, I would guess that there is some consistent language. I would also be very surprised if preparing students for life beyond high school (including college, post-secondary programs, or employment) were not a part of the mission of your district.

    I am totally unsure of the point that you believe you are making by balking at writing letters for any and all who request, or punishing students for your district’s policy. I personally don’t see what is abhorrant about writing an honest letter (sketchy as the across the board model that you were following for those for whom you could not say something positive) that either recommends the student’s desired course, or some other that you find more appropriate. In your paid position, as teacher, you are privy to information on students. Requiring that you report that information to further the mission consistent goals of students seems to me to be absolutely a part of the job–whether your contract includes the words “Letter of Recommendation” or not. Why make everything so difficult?

  24. Lightly Seasoned says:

    Why make everything so difficult?

    Indeed. For whom?

  25. LS:

    I would say for students, parents, administrators, the BOE, some lawyers and the programs requesting the LORs, based on Miller’s first post about his non-compliant compliance.

  26. Miller T. Smith says:

    1. Margo/Mom wrote:

    My comments [found between brackets]
    Miller:
    You seem to be saying that a LOR is some kind of glowing endorsement (which makes the issue of paying for them even more odious) [Uh…what do you think the word RECOMMENDATION means? The use of the word in a letter IS an endorsement! You are not being serious here.]. I don’t see it that way. I have written endorsements that said no more than what I thought a person was capable of, or good at [Then why write them?]. Whether that fits well with what the recipient (the employer or program) is looking for is up to them to determine [The ones I write are requested by specific programs for specific reasons requesting that I evaluate a student for admission to their program. General pabulum I leave to the teachers who write anything for everyone].
    I have never had the advantage of working under a contract, so my judgment has tended to be bounded more by professional standards, as well as the policies and procedures of my employer. I cannot imagine, however, that somewhere in that great vast general contract that has been hashed out over time between your union representatives and your district that there isn’t some clause that pertains to appropriate reporting on students [A letter of RECOMMENDATION (see that highly specific word again?) has nothing to do with “…appropriate reporting on students” A RECOMMENDATION is a personal endorsement of a student who, by your judgment, meets your standards for which you are endorsing them. If you want a proper report on a student, well, I do those all the time for progress reports, IEP reports, and the like. If a college wants to know if little Jane shows up on time with a check off list saying all the time, most of the time, half the time, etc, then by all means I fill those out. But that is NOT a Letter of RECOMMENDATION. That you confound the two speaks volumes]. It may not specify in words “letter of recommendation,” however, I would guess that there is some consistent language. I would also be very surprised if preparing students for life beyond high school (including college, post-secondary programs, or employment) were not a part of the mission of your district [Ooo. Snarky aren’t we. At no time or by any stretch of the imagination is a LOR a way to prepare a student for life. Why would it be? A LOR would be an expression by a sincere teacher about how well a student has been prepared. The LOR does not prepare a student. Come on now, you must be pulling my leg!].
    I am totally unsure of the point that you believe you are making by balking at writing letters for any and all who request [To do so would make all LORs that I wrote worthless and worthy of the circular file.], or punishing students for your district’s policy [Not writing a LOR is not a punishment from me. How could it be? Do you really insist that I write a letter endorsing a student? Why? To make them feel better? How could it be worth anything to anyone? You’re joking…you must be.]. I personally don’t see what is abhorrent about writing an honest letter (sketchy as the across the board model that you were following for those for whom you could not say something positive) that either recommends the student’s desired course [Why would I recommend a course the student already desires? Strange logic or lack thereof here, Margo], or some other that you find more appropriate. In your paid position, as teacher, you are privy to information on students. Requiring that you report that information to further the mission consistent goals of students seems to me to be absolutely a part of the job–whether your contract includes the words “Letter of Recommendation” or not. Why make everything so difficult? [I will make a report that my school system requires for a specific purpose, but NEVER a Letter of RECOMMENDATION! That belongs to me and me alone and no one has the right-moral or legal-to force me to say good or bad things about anyone as if it were my opinion and true thoughts. That you think so reveals your Stalinist mindset. You have to be a troll.]
    [How about this Margo: Would you accept a LOR from me (being my duty and all as you say) that specifically said that the student has no business going to college, is hostile and argumentative, consistently late with work, their work is always incomplete and or poor quality, fails all tests, etc? If you would reject such a letter as my right to write, then your position is the same as mine, if not, you are a troll]

  27. Miller T. Smith, I agree with your perspective on LORs, but I want to defend Margo/Mom here from one thing in your last comment. She is not a troll. She has strong opinions and expresses them forcefully, but whatever you think about her opinions, she does not appear to be baiting you or anyone on any thread, that I’ve ever seen. I read the comments on Joanne’s site frequently (it’s a great group of commenters) and while I often don’t agree with Margo/Mom, I have not found her unreasonable, rude, offensive, off-topic or any other way one could legitimately characterize a troll.

    I will say again: I agree with your perspective above. But calling Margo/Mom a troll does your argument no favor. You engage with her quite well, until the name calling, but it diminishes your rhetoric.

  28. Lightly Seasoned says:

    Margo: Ah, everyone except the person writing the letter.

  29. Recommend (Merriam Webster):
    a: to present as worthy of acceptance or trial
    b: to endorse as fit, worthy, or competent

    So, if the student is not fit in your eyes for college, you should not write a letter of recommendation. I once asked a wise old teacher what to do if I were asked to write a letter by someone who I saw as unfit, and he suggested that I tell them that my letter would do more to hurt them than help them.

    As for the form vs personalized letter discussion, every letter of recommendation that I have ever received (from high school on) has been quite personalized to my achievements and qualities. My employers have commented during the hiring process that they were quite pleased with the quality and honesty in my recommendation letters.

  30. Miller T. Smith says:

    Sorry patricia, but the position Margo is taking is so incredibly unreasonable that the ‘troll’ comment came to mind quite naturally.

    I cannot imagine a more unreasonable position. Seriously. An attitude of unmitigated entitlement and snarkiness could very well be a troll.

    But maybe it’s just me she is responding to.