Thursday, October 27, 2011

A Second Big Thirsty: "Have You Ever Seen a Bad Letter of Recommendation?" Peter in Pomona Postulates.

Am I off my rocker on this? I've never seen a bad letter of recommendation. I've never even whiffed one that I thought was coded to reveal a weakness in the candidate.

I've hired more than a half dozen English proffies over the past 17 years at a pleasant SLAC, and I have found that the rec letters are nearly useless to me and my committees. (And, please, I know this is just from one viewpoint, so I honestly wonder what others are seeing.)

All of the candidates love teaching. They all also have rich research potential. They all are among "the top 5% of grad students this mentor has ever taught!" (They're all above average drivers, of course.)

And when we meet these people, they end up being a mix of good and bad and average candidates. 

But surely my experience is limited. So, tell us about the bad rec letters you've seen.

- Peter in Pomona


  1. With all of my soul I wish I were as good as my letters make me out to be.

    Oh, and with more hair.

  2. I've never written a bad letter of recommendation. If I cannot say something nice, I give excuses until they look elsewhere. Those that I write for I divide into three categories: good, great, really awesome. All would look positive to the reader; the last category is simply more enthusiastic and includes the occasional exclamation point.

  3. I have however had bad letters written about me, as an undergrad, when one of my profs got me confused with someone else and wrote about my "very low GPA" being made up for my "years of service." I had a 4.0 so no clue where he got that from.

    (I only know this because my grad school adviser asked me about it after I was accepted)

  4. If a student is great, I write a recommendation letter that includes specific praise and nice anecdotes that convey how great the student is and why.

    If a student is good but not great, I write a recommendation that's positive but rather nonspecific.

    If a student is bad, I won't write the recommendation.

    For these reasons, yes, you're right, recommendation letters are pretty much useless. I've never seen a negative one myself, though I've heard tales of them.

  5. Is the point of rec letters really to learn anything about the recommendee? Or is it just to demonstrate that the person applying was able to find at least three former teachers/bosses willing to sign their names to something saying they don't suck?

  6. Jenn, that's a really good question. For summer internships for undergrads, I'd say the answer is yes. It can be hard for a good student to find three faculty who know more about the student other than, "Student got a B+ in my class."

  7. I liken rec letters to R&R letters from journal editors - do they "suggest", "recommend" or "strongly recommend" a rewrite? All seemingly positive, but quite different messages contained within.

    If all their writers just say the candidate is "good," that's an easy toss to the bin.

  8. In Eric Newby's "A short walk in the Hindu Kush", (or some similar tale - I forget exactly which) there's a great scene hiring porters. One candidate steps forward and proudly offers a tattered piece of paper - a recommendation letter from the last expedition that hired him. The note (which the man obviously cannot read) says in toto:

    "If you hire this man, you are a bloody fool."

    Now THAT was an informative reference letter.

  9. It didn't say anything bad, but a friend received a rather poor one last year. If you are a business writing faculty member the least you can do is know proper business letter format. The letter was an unholy mess, and I suspect cost the student some interviews (alignment was all wrong, indentation not consistent, writing just plain sucked.... all things that would make me fail my students there in a professional letter of recommendation).

  10. I've seen few. Not too many, but some.

    My favorite was probably one from about a dozen years ago in a letter for an applicant to a national fellowship program. As best I remember, the letter opened with:

    "We have a large program in hamster-fur-medicine studies that trains many doctoral students. John Doe is one of those students."

    It was downhill from there.

  11. Because I work in a place where MUCHO support is given, so much so that a hamster ought to be successful, I have occasionally felt obligated to write a letter of rec for someone who earned a good grade in my class but did so with so much help ----either from me during repeated office hours visits or from student support services--- that I my true feelings as to their merit were not reflected in their grade. In that case, I say that the student "will thrive in a supportive environment." This is code for, this person will drive you batshit crazy with questions and needs, but if you are super patient and don't mind---they will eventually get the job done correctly, even well.

    This is not a person I would want to hire.

    On another note, I find that when speaking to people, you can get a better feel for how enthusiastic they are about a candidate than you can through a letter of rec.

  12. I've never written a bad letter, but I never hesitate to say I'm not familiar enough with the person's widget-weaving technique (or that, frankly, I am not competent to comment on the student's technique even though I have witnessed it often). I assume the reader will contact me if they have questions; that's what I would do. And then I say to the person on the other end, "Hey, I don't know much about gerbils. I study hamsters. But I really like this guy...."

  13. I had an excellent letter of recommendation written for me by my supervisor when I recently went for a TT job that I got shortlisted for. (He voluntarily sent me a copy afterwards). Later I found out he had also sent a second letter, expressing excitement about one of the other shortlisted candidates and making arguments for why they should hire him. He also volunteered THIS information to me at a dinner a few weeks afterwards (when the other candidate had indeed been hired).

    He expressed amazement when I suggested that this might have lowered my own chances. And anyway, surely I could also see how awesome that other candidate was? Not that I wasn't, he noted. But so was he!

  14. I should clarify, the second letter was entirely unsolicited.

  15. I know the code by now -- and this is one reason I will not let students have copies of their letters, because I don't want them comparing them. Of course I won't write for someone I genuinely don't think is good, but there are ways to signal just how good. There's "enthusiastically recommend" vs. "highly recommend" vs. "warmly recommend." There are key phrases like "best student I've had in X years," or in "all my years" or whatever; or "my highest recommendation" vs. "recommend without reservations." There are red flag phrases like "would do best in a nurturing environment" (i.e., is high maintenance). So yeah, they're all "good," but there's an art to reading and writing them. What you're looking for are really red flags or someone's best student. The rest is noise.

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  17. I won't ordinarily write a bad letter of recommendation, which is a waste of time for everyone. If I don't think highly enough of a student to write a good letter, I have the integrity to tell them to their faces that I won't, unlike at least one of my undergraduate professors and at least one of my postdoctoral mentors.

    I have had more than one student who was so dumb, he insisted that I write a bad letter anyway, so I wrote a bad letter anyway. Even then, I tried to stick to the facts ("this student could not understand the magnitude scale, not matter what" and "this student consistently produced inferior results because of his steadfast refusal to read the manual"), rather than getting personal (e.g. "purple hairy anus wrinkle").

    I read bad letters in applications only rarely, but if so, it's a red flag. They typically read something like, "Doesn't get confused as often as he used to..."

  18. In a world of hyperbolic recommendations, a "bad" letter is one that is lukewarm, or that never actually comes out and says that the student is smart, or that damns with faint praise, or that says that the student will be very good at a small college. A combination of reticence, lack of enthusiasm, and praise for relatively trivial qualities (punctuality) does the trick.

  19. Word came back to me, years later, that one of my M.A. professors (who I learned only too late was legendary for craziness) had written me a three-sentence "recommendation" for a couple of Ph.D. programs I applied to. Needless to say, I was not accepted to those programs.

    The lesson I've taken away: If I can't actually recommend a student, then I don't write a letter. To do otherwise is cruel.


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