Wednesday, January 25, 2006

I Write Letters

This time of year brings tons of students to my door looking for letters of recommendation for graduate school. Unlike some of my colleagues, I never agree to write a letter for somebody whom I can’t say something positive about in my letter. Who wants to be such a negative force in somebody’s life? Most of my letters are positive and sincere.

Still, some letters require, shall we say, a bit more diplomacy. Blatantly plagiarizing this idea from a decade-old piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education (and who reads that rag?), let me give you what I write in letters of recommendation and what I really mean:

    What I write: This student approached history with an unconventional perspective.

    What I mean: Sometimes I was amazed this student could dress him/herself.

    What I write: This student distinguished his/herself during class discussions.

    What I mean: I barely remember this student ever taking a class from me.

    What I write: I recommend this student without reservation.

    What I mean: I recommend this student without reservation.

    What I write: I recommend this student.

    What I mean: I had reservations about recommending this student.

    What I write: With solid mentoring, this student will really shine.

    What I mean: This student will likely drop out of graduate school after a semester, but I thought he/she should have a shot.

    What I write: Never one to make a big splash, this student worked diligently throughout the semester.

    What I mean: This student has poor social skills.

    What I write: This student worked closely with several senior faculty members in our department.

    What I mean: This student was known to sleep with his/her professors.

    What I write: Though this student became a history major in his/her third year, he/she showed their commitment to the field.

    What I mean: This student failed at being an engineering major in his/her second year.

    What I write: This student expressed his/her creativity in writing.

    What I mean: This student was smart, but functionally illiterate.

    What I write: This student has remarkable writing abilities and could convey the larger themes of the reading.

    What I mean: This student could write but has never had a creative thought in his/her life.

    What I write: This student brought a unique perspective to class discussions.

    What I mean: This student never read any of the assigned books.

    What I write: This student has discussed with me his/her profound desire to attend your university.

    What I mean: I hope this student does not continue graduate education here.


Adam said...

The same kind of tea leaf reading goes on when departments have to read applicants dossiers that contain letters of rec. when they hire new faculty. My partner recently had to do this and he told me how he decifered the letters he read. Its really amusing. I love academia.

Dorian said...

Man...looking back at my old letters of recomendation, my professors must have hated me!

Frank said...

That's the thing I don't get about letters of recommendation: if everyone's lying, or at least painting a rosier picture than reality, what the hell use are they? And if everyone's looking for the "real" message, what happens with a truly sincere letter?

jackhampster said...

My favorite recomendation for a former employee was...

Do not hire them!

They (the caller) would respond with "What?"

Then I would say... "If you don't hire them, they will have to come back here and re-apply for their old job, and I sure would like them back.

As far as letters of recomendation.. I had a strict policy... you write it and I'll sign it... No one ever came back.

Aethlos said...

your blog is very crisp. :)

Bigg said...

I just have to tell you how hilarious I found this post. I work in a medical school, and I have to write recommendation letters all the time. I, too, have developed shorthand phrases for what I really mean.
Great post!