Friday, January 18, 2008

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?"


  1. "I recommend without reservation both the veal and the chicken dishes, but I give my highest recommendation to the veal."

    Yes, I've run across this category this year. It's there, it seems, to allow for discrimination between various students who've crossed the threshold of being those about whom you have no reservations and those who are the best (among the relevant comparison class). Perhaps to my students' detriment, I take the classifications literally (i.e., without codes).

  2. David,

    By code, I just mean that you can "recommend" a person, which sounds positive, but of course since we all know there are other classifications higher, it's really somewhat negative.

    My thoughts on this really are just that it's amusing how you have to try to figure out what's hip for "best recommendation" according to the letter readers nowadays. I'm pretty sure (though I may be wrong) that it was standard in the past to say "without reservation" was the highest. Clearly not anymore!

    Perhaps "highest" recommendation will be tossed aside eventually too. "Supreme"? Who knows!


  3. Oddly enough, I just did my last recommendation for the year -- it asked for a more general appraisal, actually.

    "Do not recommend"
    "Recommend with reservations"
    "Recommend with enthusiasm"

    Clearly, the last one -- well, at least in my ear -- sounds less laudatory than either "without" or "highest" reservation.

  4. It seems like the proliferation of categories Chris mentions is a bit of pushback against recommendation inflation: the more categories you introduce, the easier it might be to differentiate those students who merely walk on water from the rare student who actually invented water.


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