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Dog Letters

California State University, Dominguez Hills
University of Wisconsin, Parkside
Latest update: September 3, 1998
E-mail 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.



Asking the Dog Letter Questions



Sample Dog Letter

Click on linked comment numbers for comments and analysis.

Date 1999

Application Committee(1)
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).

Sincerely,

Letter D. Letter, Ph.D.
Professor
Humanities and Fine Arts College of Lost Souls



Comments and Analyses


  1. Problem: No specific addressee. Suggests the letter was wholesale, one size fits all. If you care enough to send a letter of recommendation, send it to someone. If you want your boss to promote you, tell her, don't just announce it to the office staff. A mentor who would send such a letter does a disservice to the student.


  2. Problem. Recommend her for WHAT??? Again this suggests a generic recommendation. In this case, that is precisely what the student asked for. She hadn't figured out what kind of job she wanted. This is NOT the way to approach effective authentication of competence.


  3. At last, a sentence with detail. This is not my dog, who cannot do welding and casting.


  4. "intensity of motivation" - unsupported conclusionary statement - She was actually motivated to make small, fantastical objects with great attention to detail, such as welding perfect corners. Now I know that detail. But that had nothing to do with the agenda of the class. What counts here, her persistence in her own highly limited goal, or her failure to accomodate that to other agendas?


  5. Perspicacity. A good trait. But does it mean here that Julia persists until the assigned task is completed, or that she follows her own inclinations with tenacity? One begins to suspect that so much ambiguity is the result either of the recommender's own incompetence or the student's lack of attention to demonstrating competencies that a future employer or graduate program might want.


  6. "Dedicated to fine art." What on earth does that mean? That she will attend to work or her studies only when the muse is not with her? Or that she is talented, and produces some fine art work? Or that she hangs out with artists? Or that she will hang strange art on the walls at work or in the student lounge? At least it cannot be said of my dog, except when he is tearing up a soft sculpture.

    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.


  7. Finally, the recommending teacher provides detail, almost as though she were desperate to get hold of something concrete. The main problem is that she is providing that detail primarily about her own project. As the reader, I begin to suspect that the teacher is unsure of the student's commitment in some way.


  8. At last, a sigh of relief. Julia exhibits "enthusiasm" and "artistic talent." And these details are followed by more explicit detail.


  9. Having finally settled on something she can describe of Julia's work, the teacher does so enthusiastically. But notice that this section speaks of unusual success and talent as a teacher of art. Julia had made especially clear that she was NOT applying either for teaching jobs or art and design jobs. So what kind of job did she want? But to that question, Julia had no answer. Although this paragraph describes Julia as a talented and wonderful person, its description of skills offers little to most employers except in the way of human relation skills, and with young people, at that.

    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?


  10. Others took part in the project, so that Julia must be able to corroborate, but there is no emphasis on any team work, as, in fact, there was no team work. Our team merely tried to support Julia in whatever she might take it into her head to do. The children always responded to her, directly.


  11. And here there is a successful ending to the project. But the teacher does not speak of tenacity, the meeting of goals. If you are the reader, you must notice these lacunae. They matter. Why doesn't the teacher speak of tenacity? In fact, the exhibition took the struggle of many, and Julia often tired of the non-glamorous pieces. Many, many students, who ultimately got little credit for their work, worked many hours on that exhibition, but Julia gave no notice to that.

    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.


  12. Here is where the recommender casts her spell. Julia's enthusiasm and talent were clearly qualities with which the recommender was impressed. But the spell is cast with the word "focus." Here is a faerie queen. If you can capture her attention, she will wield magic, causing all around her to shine. If the reader reads carefully, that will be clear.

    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.



    Reviewers Tend to Ignore Dog Letters

    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.