California State University, Dominguez Hills
University of Wisconsin, Parkside
Latest update: September 3, 1998
Faculty on the Site.
Asking the Dog Letter Questions
Asking whether the conclusions are supported by evidence.
Sample Dog Letter and Analysis
Finding jobs by analyzing job descriptions.
Reviewers Tend to Ignore Dog Letters
Confirmation from O'Connors MegaLaw Site
Read the section on Admission to Law School.
Link checked September 3, 1999.
See also: Letters of Recommendation
Forms and samples for teachers and students to share.
Sample unsupported conclusionary statements.
If the conclusionary phrase "works well with people" is all the information given, how can we know this person doesn't just jump, fetch, and pester people?
If the conclusionary phrase "shows inner motivation, takes initiative" is all the information given, how can we tell whether we agree or disagree with the person writing the letter or the authentication? How will we know that the person described is motivated to do what we want done, in the classroom, on the job? Could be, that like my dog, he's motivated to do what he wants to do. That could be disastrous.
If the phrase "is a good student" is not elaborated with detail, we cannot tell that the tricks he learns are ones we want him to learn.
This phenomenon of unsupported conclusionary statements explains my reaction to the rubric of critical thinking. It amounts to a collection of phrases, perhaps good phrases, as are "internally motivated, good student, etc.", but gives me no supportive detail. In the real world of authentication of competency we must deal in specifics. Generalities can get us into terrible trouble, not least because our students learn to spout the generalities as though they mean something, when in fact they represent only imperfectly understood conceptualization and superficial analysis and synthesis. It is dangerous to fail to ground our conceptualizations in specific data. A letter full of such generalities suggests that either we are the students are at a very superficial level of authentication.
Click on linked comment numbers for comments and analysis.
Letter of Recommendation
It is with great pleasure that I recommend Julia Iforgotherlastname(2). I had the opportunity to teach welding and metal casting to Julia (3). I was impressed by the intensity of her motivation, (4) by her steadfastness in pursuing her projects to completion, (5) and her dedication to fine art(6).
I had just taken over a program, at the County School for Special Children, in bringing artists to the school to engage visually handicapped children in art projects that would help in raising their self esteem and provide to them the joy of art (7). Julia's enthusiasm and artistic talent (8) transformed that program into a fantastic success.
The children felt her enthusiasm, responded intensely to her, waited breathlessly each week for her arrival. She was the light of their day. And she responded in kind to them. Her caring was evident in every piece of work, in every exchange in the classroom. She sat with the children in a circle as they shared stories about their art projects. She could get each of them to shine separately. The sharing circles were sheer poetry, with Julia the catalyst that made it all happen (9).
Our program brought three or four artists on each visit. They were wonderful in working with the children. But the children remained always focused on Julia (10), who led us all in planning and putting on the Exhibit of the children's work at one of the local film studios. Enough money was raised from the sale of the children's art projects that night to take the entire school to Knott's Berry Farm (11).
Julia's enthusiasm and talent are certain to enhance any project on which she focuses (12).
Letter D. Letter, Ph.D.
Humanities and Fine Arts College of Lost Souls
At this point, as a reader, I suspect that the teacher is hesitant in the recommending of this student. There seem to be some good qualities, but no evidence of disciplined learning, or of production, or of attention to the supervisor's or teacher's agenda.
Still, note the fine detail. The response of enthusiasm to enthusiasm. She listened actively, encouraging the children to tell their stories. She made them shine. There is a magic described in this relationship. In fact, Julia inspired just that kind of magic. But to what employers shall I speak of magic and Peter Pan?
Why doesn't the teacher just say that? Because Julia was a good and talented person. Letters of recommendation are not the place for working out such differences. They are the place for presenting an authentication of the individual's strengths, what they can and do do well. I once watched an admissions committee debate the admission of a candidate they would not have accepted otherwise, but a professor had written such a negative letter of recommendation, they were considering admitting the student just to see for themselves what could have prompted such a letter. People are people. They are complex and curious. They see the world and accomplishments differently. Julia had many wonderful qualities. If an employer could see evidence of those qualities and find a place for her based on them, they would probably have a wonderful working relationship.
To write such a letter is difficult. Far easier are those for the students who are focussed as traditional employers would wish them to be. Far more important, however, than such letters, are the conferences, the discourse, that lead to the knowledge that underlies the letter. Had Julia spent a little time talking about the perceptions of her described here, then she might have found ways to reassure the teacher, align her strengths and talents to match different employment scenes, and find a place where her talents could be comfortably used and appreciated.
This is a real letter, changed in places to protect the innocent, for a real student.
Julia never picked it up, never supplied an address to which it should be sent.
This quote is taken from Dr. Tom O'Connor, Justice Studies Department, from his excellent site on preparing for law school.
Some law schools require recommendations; others do not, and they rarely are a factor in consideration unless the student has one written by an employer (law-related, if possible) who attests that the applicant was trusted with client's lives, property and liberty. Personal statements are also unremarkable in that they all contain the same ramblings about justice, serving people and the profession. They are looking for real people with depth, not just people who have slid down the pipeline from kindergarten to college."
It's really OK to have "slid down the pipeline," if you were lucky enough to have that chance. But Dr. O'Connor is suggesting that most letters of recommendation are tin badges of rhetoric passed out by well-meaning but inattentive teachers to students who have taken almost no time to ponder how their education has affected them in any way that would matter to a law school. Why read them?
One plausible answer lies in the series on this site on interdependent authentication of learning. In law school, lawyers-to-be are taught that a good legal argument should consist of law, fact, law, fact, law, fact. Then, after having examined each facet of the law which applies, and marshalled the facts of the case to show how and why the law should be applied in the case at bar, then a conclusion or recommendation is made. I think that's what O'Connor means by ramblings about justice, about serving or "helping" people. Instead of rambling, give concrete facts from which the reviewer can conclude that the facts at issue demonstrate the qualities recommended.