A Ku Indeed!

Cracking the Code: Student Recommendation Letters

Posted in Academia, Life by Chris on January 18, 2008

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?”

6 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. eyeingtenure said, on January 18, 2008 at 11:16 am

    I’d guess that this last category acts as a credibility check for the letter writer. If the letter is well-written, this highest recommendation level bolsters the case for the graduate candidate.

    If, on the other hand, the letter is poorly written and yet the student recieves the highest recommendation, the letter writer would not be considered a reliable recommender.

    But I have a feeling that’s already the case.

    There’s a point where having multiple levels of judgement becomes wholly arbitrary. Five is pushing it — who ever saw a credible five-star movie rating?


  2. Chris said, on January 18, 2008 at 8:19 pm

    Right. But as I was saying, it starts to become a code and you don’t have the code in front of you. When people push for too many distinctions, I think, they assume that everyone is on the same page with those fine-grained distinctions. As a result, they read less than exemplary recommendations (in their reading) as a ‘message’ to the reader, when it very well might not be.

  3. eyeingtenure said, on January 18, 2008 at 9:39 pm

    With any reservations, clarify them in the letter. Insist, at the very beginning, that this letter isn’t like all the others — it should be taken at face value.

    I don’t imagine enough liars use that way that it’s become cheapened.


  4. eyeingtenure said, on January 18, 2008 at 9:39 pm


  5. amber said, on January 26, 2008 at 2:36 am

    That seems so arbitrary! There would be so much individual difference in the interpretation of the scale I would think.

    One time I was a judge for a poetry contest, and the scoresheets were on a scale from 1 to 10, and I just gave probably ninety percent of them a 5.

    The poems I hated, because they were offensive maybe, I gave a 1 or 2. The ones that I loved and wanted to win I gave a 9 or 10, even though it was probably more a 5, 6, or 7 compared to every poem that I’ve ever known of, I wanted them to win compared to everybody else though. I thought they might not get a score above others if I indicated my truthful opinion.

    There is a rating system on my facebook profile for movies. I just rated movies that I liked and gave them all a 5 out of 5 stars. The rest I didn’t rate.

    You know, I either like a movie, and think it’s worthwhile, or I don’t like it, or don’t know very much about it.

    My peers will often discuss what we put on those teacher evaluation forms, and a lot of them put a perfect score because they like them. Actually I do that. I know some that would put the worst score possible, to voice their opinion that they strongly dislike a teacher. Even though it’s not totally true that a particular teacher is a complete failure in every aspect, they know it might offset the results more effectively, then having a moderate opinion with a slight leaning.

    If I were called upon to recommend anybody, I’d probably tend to want to give everybody really high ratings and be really positive and unrealistic even.

    Students tend to seek out the teachers that have that attitude I bet, than the ones they know would have a realistic approach.

    I’d imagine that a rating from a teacher that gave everybody their highest recommendation is different than a rating from a teacher that is more discerning. The two professors might rate the same student differently. It’s so subjective; I don’t understand how that answer would help an employer or school make a decision.

    I wonder what the results would be in a comparative study of teachers rating a single student, compared to the student’s actual success in graduate school, you know, with a lot of students.

    I bet that the different scale would effect the information that the results reflect.

    Since the scale is higher, I bet raters would be more apt to choose a higher rating. It might cause a shift from “I recommend them” to “I strongly recommend them.” Because the rater would not want to give them the fourth place rating, they might give them a third place rating instead. Or a second place instead of the third place option.

    Also I think some are hesitant to ever give a perfect rating or the worst rating. In this case they might “recommend them” to avoid the worst which is not recommending them.

    Or I bet a lot of raters would usually have a slightly above average rating that they almost always give, you know, comparable to 4 stars for a movie.

    I don’t think it’s a very useful bit of information. It would be if it were more specific I think.

    Such as maybe, are they respectful? Or, are they responsible?

    Ha ha ha shindizzle recommendation. LoL.

  6. PhDer said, on April 11, 2013 at 10:45 am

    I just got a letter of recommendation from my thesis chair, and to my surprise just says the above pointed out he decided to write an inconsistent letter of recommendation. The reason why it’s inconsistent offer two reasons. First, he checked that I met several criteria in the 50% range as opposed to the top 5,10 or even 20% range. But the real telling side of the coded recommendation is when he checked strongly recommended on one part of the form only to contradict that recommendation to only “recommend” me for funding.this is ridiculous. And his actual letter he highlighted everything that’s good. For example, he states that communication is my strength which translates into my producing quality work. Here is the clincher because of his inefficient and none helpful interaction as a thesis chair he does not provide any insight, guidance, mentoring or any other academic support and as a result, I don’t even call him. He knows I am agitated and irritated with his lack of support he writes in his letter of recommendation.”I consistently take constructive feedback in a non-defensive manner.”he is fooling himself because he knows that I’m irritated with him and that I have gotten so fed up he must’ve felt it. So, this is his code word for saying that I get offended by his lack of supporting me.there’s no way I can use this letter for recommendation. He even spelled my name and this will not go over well with the graduate committee when they realize that my referee is actually saying that he and I worked well together. Apparently not well enough because he does not even know how to spell my name.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: