Letters of Reference in the Linguistics Department

The faculty of the Linguistics Department at Carleton welcome requests for letters of reference. We know that references from us can be very important to you. We therefore take them very seriously, and do everything we can to make sure that what we write is accurate, informative to the audience, and delivered on time. If you think we might be appropriate referees, please don’t hesitate to ask us. We want to help you.

We have found it useful to see a letter of reference as falling into one of three types. The first level is for local bounded projects. Here, we are writing to people at Carleton, people who most likely we know personally.  By “bounded” we mean projects that typically last a year or less, and where the refereeing process is less formal. Here are some things that fall within that category:

  • Jobs at Carleton
  • TA and RA positions
  • Carleton off-campus programs

For these letters, it isn’t necessary that you’ve taken a lot of linguistics classes or participated in the Program. One class is usually sufficient. Here’s what to do:

  • Ask us at least two weeks before the deadline.
  • Tell us something about who we are writing to, and give us the deadline.
  • Write something that reminds us how we know you. (For example you might say, “I took Linguistics 110 in the fall of 2008, and wrote a paper about the motor theory of speech perception.”)
  • If there’s something in particular you’d like us to mention in our letter, tell us.

A slightly more elaborate procedure is required for what we call nonlocal bounded projects. For these, the process is typically somewhat more formal, and we’re writing to people we usually don’t know personally, people who likely don’t know much about our Program or even about Carleton. Here’s some examples:

  • Summer internships
  • Summer jobs
  • Non-Carleton academic programs

For these, the better we know you the more effective our letter will be, but even so, not much previous contact with us is necessary. Typically we will need to set a context and put you in that context, with some elaboration. We may need some knowledge about who we are writing to, and what you hope to accomplish. Here’s what to do:

  • Ask us two weeks before the deadline.
  • Write something that includes:
    • what you’ve done for us, i.e. classes, activities, jobs in  the program, etc.
    • your objective
    • a description of who we are writing to
    • links to relevant websites, if any
    • the address to which the letter should be sent

Don’t forget to give us any forms our audience would like us to fill in. Occasionally these sorts of projects don’t require us to write anything, but rather simply to be ready to accept a phone call from a representative of the company or university. In this case, you should still give us (in writing) your objective and something that tells us who we will be talking to, or at least something about the organization they represent.

The most elaborate and perhaps most important letters are for national competitions. Here’s some examples:

  • Fellowships, such as Fulbright or Watson
  • Full-time, long-term jobs
  • Professional schools (such as law or medicine)
  • Graduate schools

We want you to win these competitions. Our experience tells us that in order to do that, our letters should be accurate, candid, detailed, and fairly comprehensive. So, we need to know many things about you, and for this, we need your help.

Before we elaborate on this, let’s first address an important point. Do not choose your referees casually. Think about the quality of information your reference will be able to provide. Generally speaking, new and detailed (and of course positive) information is better than old, vague (or perish-the-thought negative) information.

If we feel we don’t know you very well enough to write a strong letter, we will let you know. You may wish to configure your references with different people. But there are occasions on which we will still be the most appropriate referee, and in this case the information you provide to us is especially valuable.

We will write letters to anyone you ask us to. But there’s one kind of letter that we are particularly prepared to write, and that is to linguistics graduate programs. In almost all cases, we will know a great deal about the program to which you are applying, and in many cases we will have personal relationships with the people who will be reading your file. In this case, it is imperative that you discuss your plan with us.

Okay, for all national competitions we need:

  • An “internal” resume

This is something you have prepared especially for us. It lists

  • all the courses you took in Linguistics and who your teachers were
    • all extra-curricular activities you did in the program (e.g. searches, TAing)
    • a list of other significant classes you took during your college career
    • a list (with descriptions if necessary) of other non-academic activities (e.g. rugby team, singing groups, student government)
  • a copy of papers you have written for us
  • a conversation about what you want to do and why
  • a copy of the current draft of your personal statement
  • information about who we are writing to, if we need it
  • deadlines

This should all come to us at least two weeks before the deadline, and longer if possible. Typically, we will design our letter to give you the best possible chance of winning the competition, and this requires that we give not only a candid and detailed assessment of your work, but that we also characterize you as a person and project how you will fit into the organization to which you are applying. That’s why we ask for all of this stuff.

Again, do not think you are giving us some kind of an extra unwelcome burden. On the contrary, just about everything we do in our program is designed to help you become a skilled, articulate, and confident contributor to whatever sort of enterprise you wish to pursue. This includes letters of reference. With a little bit of cooperation from you, we think we can provide an important piece of the necessary preparation that will enable you to thrive out there in the wild blue yonder.