Impression Management and Letters of Recommendation

04/23/2013 12:32 pm 12:32:30 | Updated Jun 23, 2013
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Matthew (not his real name) was once a student of mine. He regularly left class early, arrived late, and seemed bored when he was there. His coursework was mediocre at best, and when he got his grade at the end of the semester -- which was consistent with his scores throughout the semester -- he came to complain. He didn't do well in the participation part of the course, which he argued "wasn't fair."

Imagine my surprise when he then asked me for a letter of recommendation.

Matthew might have passed the class, but he failed at something sociologist Erving Goffman described as impression management. This is the process by which we try and shape what others think of us through our actions and appearance. Goffman saw social life as a performance and the people with whom we interact as an audience of sorts. As an "audience member" I wasn't terribly impressed by Matthew's "performance" as student in search of a recommendation.

Here's the tricky thing about impression management: we may have multiple audiences for whom we are performing at once. For some students, appearing to be very engaged in a class might give off an impression that they are conformists.

As sociologist R.W. Connell described in a classic article called "Cool Guys, Swats, and Wimps: The Interplay of Masculinity and Education," some men from working class backgrounds construct a sense of masculinity through resisting educational authorities, much as Paul Willis found in his 1981 classic, Learning to Labor: How Working Class Kids Get Working Class Jobs. Researchers today also consider how the higher education gap between men and women might be related to the notion that commitment to education is somehow feminine. I have seen some men actually tease other men in the classroom for participating or appearing to pay attention.

Still other students have little practice with attempting to craft an impression as a professional, which providing a reference often requires. While as a student it may not seem to matter if you have a few absences or come to class late on occasion, as an employee this could be grounds for termination. Some students treat being a student as their job, one where they try hard to craft an impression that they are serious and committed. These are always the easiest people to write letters of recommendation for.

Impression management today takes place electronically too. Facebook posts also often have multiple audiences; people of all ages can find that they give off impressions that can get them in trouble. I give students a handout on the first day of class with tips on how to send a professional email. With ample experience sending texts or emails to friends, some students are overly informal or send a highly emotional message without thinking of its consequences first. Many years ago, a student had a very racy signature line that she used in all her emails. Another had an explicitly sexual email address. Imagine what sort of impression they gave off, especially if they used these accounts to contact possible employers!

I wonder if Matthew and students like him just don't know what sort of impression they should attempt to make with professors to get the best recommendations. From a professor's perspective:

• Come to class regularly

• Participate in class

• If you are struggling, seek help. I have written many recommendations for students who were not at the top of the class but worked really hard.

• Take responsibility for your challenges; if you are concerned about a grade, ask what you can do to improve your work rather than argue about points. Someone only seeking a higher grade could be missing a major learning opportunity -- and employers prefer to hire people open to receiving feedback.

• If completing a group project, be respectful of teammates' ideas and do all the tasks you agreed to do. Many recommendation forms ask how well you can work with others.

• Be polite to your professor, teaching assistant (if applicable) and fellow students.

Not only are professors busy and writing a good, detailed letter takes time, but it is part of our impression management too. If we vouch for a student who ultimately gives off a poor impression, ultimately so do we.

This post first appeared on Everyday Sociology Blog