ask a scatterbrain: fluff in recommendation letters

This one comes from a friend involved in the admissions process:

What to do about recommendation letters? What is the ratio of useful to fluff and distraction? How much is actual information versus hidden codes and coy signals? Today’s example is two letters from one senior professor, writing for two different students from the same department, applying to  the same department. One student is described as “by far the most  intelligent and diligent student I have ever taught.” The other is “no doubt  THE best student among all the students whom I have taught so far.” It’s  not fair to punish the poor students subjected to this, but it is tempting to disqualify both letters.

Author: andrewperrin

University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

10 thoughts on “ask a scatterbrain: fluff in recommendation letters”

  1. IMO the real problem is the whole US culture of reference letters where we assume that any letter that doesn’t make inflated claims is a weak letter. Yes, some people are known for calling every student they have ever worked with “the best,” and this kind of direct self-contradiction is lazy and unstrategic. But calling a student “the third best student I’ve worked with in my thirty years” will be read as a negative letter by a lot of people, especially Deans if this is a job market letter instead of a grad admit letter. So will any letter that lacks superlatives. If you have one of those ranking scales, whether the most extreme category is “top 10%,” “top 5%” or “top 1%” not only are most students in it, too many letter readers will assume that anyone in the second or lower category isn’t any good. Nor will they make any adjustment for how competitive or selective the pool of students being ranked. If you are writing multiple letters for the same competition, you know that the readers are going to put the blankety-blank letters side by side to decide who’s better. Someone who is actually a really good candidate can get dumped just because s/he is not as good as the other one who get a letter from the same person. Students have a whole lot of credentials, not just your letter, and you don’t want your letter to screw up a student’s chances because it looks weaker than another letter you wrote.

    The good letters stand out because they are concrete and specific about exactly what the person has done nad is like, rather than making vague “good student” attributions. But, you know, this is more about the letter-writer and the institution than the student. Letter-writers can unintentionally write weak letters because they don’t understand the culture of the US academy, and students can get weak letters because they went to large state schools where they have no chance to get the know faculty well enough to get good letters. The whole emphasis on reference letters points to the insularity of the “old boy/girl” networks and the primacy of patronage ties over other evidence of merit.

    And while we are at it, consider that we require well-written letters in English even for students coming from countries whose faculty do not teach or write in English, nor understand the nuances of the US system where everyone is above average and the above average students are all in the top 5%. When I was doing grad admits, it became clear that the “best” letters from some countries (China in particular) were written by the applicant, or a letter-writing service.

    My view: letter readers should get over this kind of petty snit and look at the whole profile the student presents. If the letters in question are both relatively vague and formulaic, containing superlatives and assurances of academic ability but relatively little detail, you should code them that way and see what else is in the file.


    1. The percentile thing in the letter is sometimes useful – if someone says “top 10%” and then justifies it (e.g, “received an A, and I give 10% A’s”), that’s fine. Sometimes it’s ridiculous. I read a fellowship application recently that had three “top 2%” letters but a GPA less than the average GPA for that school (yet, high enough to be summa cum laude). I guess the writers were seeing something in the applicant that didn’t show up in the cumulative transcript…


  2. (Incidentally, there is a particular context this year in which it is possible that a reader of his humble weblog might read an extremely enthusiastic letter of recommendation from me. That letter, I assure you, is no act of hyperbole.)


  3. My view: letter readers should get over this kind of petty snit and look at the whole profile the student presents.

    Who could argue with that? The original correspondent said they were tempted to disqualify both letters, not that they were tempted to disqualify both students. The irritation was directed at the writer for not bothering to do the letter properly. I suppose it would only be punishing the students if you treated everyone else’s letter without any skepticism. In general I read the writing sample first, then look at test scores, then look to the letters for — ideally — concrete information that contextualizes the rest of the material in the packet, particularly the writing sample. Especially for graduate admits, most of the time I honestly can’t assess claims to the effect that x or y is the nth best student the writer has had. If someone really wants to write in those terms, why not just make the comparison contentful and say “after [Name] and [Name], the best student I’ve ever worked with” — or “as good as [Name] or better than [Name]”?


  4. Maybe it’s possible to be the most intelligent and diligent and still not be the best student. More likely, the letter writer thinks very highly of both students and wrote each a strong letter, which he or she then cranked out whenever the student requested a reference — maybe even had his or her secretary print it out making the necessary changes in address (“Denise, print me out that letter on Wagstaff and send it to U of Huxley,”). He or she didn’t realize that both students had requested letters for the same place.

    I agree with OW — pay attention to content, the more specific and factual the better. Piling on laudatory adjectives without specific content reminds me of those menus that say things like, “tender morsels of finest chicken cooked to perfection in our chef’s own delicious sauce,” and don’t tell you what’s actually in the dish.


  5. “tender morsels of finest chicken cooked to perfection in our chef’s own delicious sauce,”

    “Nevertheless, I must warn you that in future you should delete the words ‘crunchy frog’, and replace them with the legend ‘crunchy raw unboned real dead frog’, if you want to avoid prosecution.”


  6. Agreed with Jay. Without more context it’s hard to say, but often enough “intelligent” and “diligent” are code for earnest pluggers, or outgroup students (like women) who are assigned to that group as faint praise.


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