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.