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Thursday, February 01, 2007

Reading Recs, Reading Wrecks

I am reading a million recommendations these days, since I'm on our grad admissions committee and it's that time of year, as some of you no doubt know as well as I do. All of this rec-reading has led me to make some new vows for my own grad-admission recs:

1) I will be more honest. Rampant rec inflation is not doing anyone any good, and driving us all insane. I'm tired of decoding language like "hard-working" and "committed" (i.e., "not so smart"). I will especially try to be honest about checking those little boxes that say "Excellent," "Very Good," "Good," etc.

2) I will write shorter recs. Typically I spend a paragraph or two in the middle giving my little summary, with a few quotes, of a paper the student wrote for me. I thought I was being really helpful in doing that. I was wrong. I find myself just skipping over those paragraphs and searching for the evaluative part. No time for that sort of detail.

3) I will be more quantitative in my recs. It's so helpful when people (seem to) honestly tell you that a student is in the top X number of students they've taught. Or when they say a student is the equal of, or better than, or almost as good as, a student they've taught who did grad work at Peer Institution.

4) I will turn down some people who ask me to write for them. (Necessary to implement #1-3.)

What do you think? I think there's a way to write a rec that is less than one page and that still gets across the range of recommendation from "absolutely superb, admit immediately," to "very good indeed," to "pretty good, think about it," to "probably not yet ready for a PhD but maybe you have an MA." It's different with job letters for finishing PhDs, but I see no reason why we need to go beyond 2 paragraphs for our undergrads applying to PhD programs.

  • At 2/02/2007 01:22:00 AM, Blogger Inkhorn wrote…

    I think it's a great idea, though it's a little like the tenure standards issue: sure, it should be done, but who's going to start?


  • At 2/02/2007 04:25:00 AM, Anonymous Heinrich C. Kuhn wrote…


    * I'm not sure about #1: I expect persons who write recommendations to do so only when they believe that the person recommended is really fit for what the recommended person applies for, and to give advise to apply somewhere else when they don't. So: reading recs I expect them to be honest in their praise, but that praise will not have much influence on my opinion.

    * On #2 I agree completely. If I want to form an opinion on an applicants brilliance in writing: I'll have a look at what the applicant writes, not at what the writer of the recommendation writes.

    * I'm not sure about #3: As I will not know how bright or dumb the average student Prof. X teaches is, something like "in the best 5% of her/his year" is only moderately helpful. On the other hand: "in the best 25% of her/his year" seems to spell "I don't recommend that student, I just wrote the recommendation because it took me less time to write it than to tell the student why I don't think he/she should apply for the thing in question". And "I've been teaching now for X years, and this student is one of the best 5 I've ever taught" is helpful only if you have some knowledge on how many reasonably bright students the recommending person tends to attract - which you normally don't have.

    * As for #4: yes! (see my comments on #1).

    Yes, this means that don't give much on most recommendations. The case is different when I know the person who recommends, and when I'm sure that she/he would never ever have written that recommendation unless she/he really thinks that the person recommended is really a good choice for the thing in question.


  • At 2/02/2007 09:24:00 AM, Blogger Hieronimo wrote…

    HCK: yes, good points, but on #1 there's still a range of praise one can give, and I would still write for a candidate who might get into a top program, and should get into a 2nd-tier program; so that means being more honest about that assessment.

    On #3, this is why I will try to mention comparisons that the reader will understand; "as good as X, who got her degree from Berkeley." Also, my field (and in the U.S.) is not so big that this can't work, I think. Reading and writing recs for a different country, however, raises a whole host of additional issues.


  • At 2/02/2007 12:33:00 PM, Blogger Simplicius wrote…

    I don't know...

    Thinking about the couple of undergrads I wrote recs for this year, I considered them both great. But they were applying to top-flight schools and second-tier and third-tier schools, so I had no idea whether they were "Excellent" or merely "Very Good" in comparison to the applicants at each individual school. Is either of them Harvard material? Probably not, but then again, who am I to judge? I do think if they were admitted, they would both do well.

    All of which is to say...a) it's hard to predict how a particular undergraduate will develop intellectually in graduate school; b) all schools end up having students working at a range of levels; and c) for 99% of schools (if not all of them), I'm just not skilled enough or knowledgeable enough to know where a particular student will fit in to the applicant pool or where he or she will end up after two or three years of graduate school.

    Rather than do all that prognosticanting for the school, I'd much rather talk about the strengths and interests of each student and let the chips fall where they may. I kind of look at it as my job not to get the person rejected anywhere; I don't yet have the juice to get them accepted anywhere, at which point maybe I'll change my tune. So I'm all for laying it on quite thick in the rec (while remaining truthful) without deciding for the other school where that person should be ranked, because, as I noted above, I just don't know enough about the applicant pools at those other schools to make that judgment.

    One more thing: length. As with the new SATs, I think there's a rhetoric of length that shouldn't be denied. Two paragraphs and a single page might often translate into "I don't have much to say about this person," which will be hard to dismiss (perhaps) even if the rest of the rec says he or she is the next William Empson.

    But of course, I imagine all of this changes once a recommender is famous. And I'm not. So there. Ut dixi.


  • At 2/02/2007 03:18:00 PM, Blogger Hieronimo wrote…

    S: but on length, I don't think the rhetoric of length matters so much for grad admissions. Definitely for job candidates, but not in admissions. At least that's my experience.

    You can't judge the applicant pool of each school, but you can judge the applicant in relation to your own school and in relation to your peers at your grad school when you started. The shorter the rec, also, the more you can tailor it to each school--or at least to the top-tier, second-tier, etc. Yes, people change and develop over the course of a grad program, but they have to be judged on where they are when they're applying, after all.

    The problem with the discursive "strengths and weaknesses" approach is that the reader's eyes glaze over and s/he skips it anyway, when reading a lot of apps. So this isn't really about my work as a rec-reader so much as it is about how to change my rec-writing to give the great student the best chance to stand out. And I think short, honest, and pointed is better than discursive strengths and weaknesses for that purpose. And that's equally helpful for the borderline case. Then the committee can decide based on the writing sample whether this borderline case (acc. to you) is worth taking the chance on.


  • At 2/02/2007 03:19:00 PM, Blogger Hieronimo wrote…

    Oops, for "strengths and weaknesses" read "strengths and interests." Any "weaknesses" at all are the kiss of death, of course. My Freudian slip.


  • At 2/06/2007 02:25:00 PM, Blogger Flavia wrote…

    I just read a rec letter for a finalist for one of the positions we're hiring for that ended with the statement (all on its own, separate line): "This guy is clearly a winner."

    And the candidate IS, clearly, a winner--but shouldn't his recommender be a bit more. . . certain? (If it IS clear, the recommender shouldn't need to tell us so.) And maybe less casual in saying so?


  • At 2/06/2007 08:50:00 PM, Anonymous midmodern scholar wrote…


    I'm also seeing all kinds of dramatic rhetorical flourishes at the end of grad school rec letters, including:

    "he's the real McCoy"
    "she's a sure bet"
    "You won't be sorry"
    "You'll be bragging about him later"
    "She will change the field"
    "Trust me. You can't do better"

    Sometimes the tone is reverentially hushed, which kills me, especially when squandered on a 22 year old. The person might be a sure bet in the long run, but please! Unfortunately, what our committee tends to look for is the magic phrase "this student is the best student I have had in 20 years."


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