Cracking the Code: Student Recommendation Letters
I’ve been filling out student recommendations for graduate school lately. Nowadays, most of the recommendations are online (thankfully), so it’s pretty easy to do. One thing stuck out at me, however. When you get to the part at the end where it asks you just how much you really are recommending this person, it asks you to check off the appropriate box to signal your intention. I noticed that two online recommendations had the following boxes:
- I do not recommend X.
- I recommend X.
- I strongly recommend X.
- I recommend X without reservation.
- I give my highest recommendation to X.
Now, for as long as I’ve been writing recommendation letters, I’ve always operated within the first four. It’s understood that if you ‘recommend’ then, given the other higher ratings, that it’s a weak recommendation. The more distinctions that appear, the more chance there is that categories are taken as code, so that not using the top category will be seen as some degree of “faint praise.”
Now, it seems, there’s a fifth category. “Highest recommendation”? Since when is that the new “shindizzle” recommendation? Who makes up this stuff? Is there a code committee out there? If so, I think there should be a Code Newsletter that comes out once a year to inform us letter writers of the latest rankings so that we know what it will mean to say “highest” or “recommend” or “without reservation” or “with enthusiasm.”
The problem is — you could be saying “without reservation” to really mean “this applicant is amazing” but the person reading it might say “aha — they don’t think X is the best!” (because to them, “highest” is actually the top).
I don’t mind the fact that people read between the lines (use code), I just want to know what the distinctions are!
Anyone had any similar experiences? I’m curious whether you have struggled, thinking, “what’s the best recommendation?” If I say “X” is there a better way to put it? Will this mean they’ll think I’m speaking between the lines?”