What NOT to Say in Your Letters of Recommendation


Sometimes one comes across a letter of recommendation in which the author, presumably with good intentions, nonetheless says something that is bizarre, inappropriate, counterproductive, or downright creepy. In the interests of grad school applicants, job seekers, tenure candidates, etc., as well as those writing letters for them, I am opening up a thread here for examples of the kinds of statements you wish you hadn’t seen in letters of recommendation.

The purpose here is not to shame particular letter writers, but to help them from making the same mistakes again, and to help those they are recommending, so please refrain from naming the authors of these infelicitous passages.

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P.S. Relatedly, if you can, please help out on this post about tips for students writing letters in support of faculty.

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Rebecca Kukla
Rebecca Kukla
5 years ago

Don’t comment on your student’s looks, period, ever, for any reason, no matter how relevant you feel it is. If you are telling yourself some narrative in which it somehow becomes relevant to a grad school application that your student is “a great beauty” or “clearly spends time on grooming” or “keeps herself in good shape,” trust me, your narrative has gone off the rails. Just don’t do it. Report

Rebecca Kukla
Rebecca Kukla
5 years ago

Also, don’t ever comment your student’s willingness to participate in scantily clad recreational activities with you, or her/his lack of such willingness. You really probably shouldn’t be pressuring your students to play around mostly naked with you in the first place, but if you do, trust me, it is really 100% irrelevant to the student’s application and makes you look like a giant creep.

More generally, if you socialize with your students, which you should think VERY carefully about how to manage (which isn’t to say you shouldn’t do it but recognize that it’s super tricky and requires ongoing advanced power dynamic management skills), keep ALL traces of that out of the letter, which should be about the student’s abilities and potential as a professional and not about your social life.Report

Nick
Nick
Reply to  Rebecca Kukla
5 years ago

I guess you wouldn’t be saying this unless someone had actually written something along these lines in an actual letter you read. And you are saying it. Which means it actually was written down, in an actual letter, by someone who actually thought that both the recreational activities and the reporting thereof were appropriate. Wow. I mean. Wow. Report

Rebecca Kukla
Rebecca Kukla
Reply to  Nick
5 years ago

Those were from three separate real letters by three people for three different candidates. My first comment pulled from two letters and the second was from its own independent treat.Report

Alfred MacDonald
Alfred MacDonald
Reply to  Rebecca Kukla
5 years ago

“ongoing advanced power dynamic management skills”

I was in agreement with you up to this, but the ‘power dynamic’ talking point has to be one of the most annoying causal things that people think is true but have extremely limited rigorous support for, and can only offer anecdotal (or worse, interpretative, i.e. “pointing to”) support for. At best it’s a somewhat true phenomenon with some empirical support that’s intensely mislabeled. Report

burkay
burkay
Reply to  Alfred MacDonald
5 years ago

The question we are all asking ourselves right now is “Why is there no hyphen between “power” and “dynamic” in this phrase?”

Definitely, terrible letter-writing skills.Report

Natalie
Natalie
Reply to  Rebecca Kukla
5 years ago

I would really like to see a post/some discussion about how different people manage the socialising-with-students thing. Thinking of my own lecturers, mentors, etc, they mostly fell into one of two extreme groups – either no socialising at all, or ill-thought out (and sometimes inappropriate) socialising – and so I don’t feel like I have a model of what to do with my own students. Of course different situations/people/dynamics call for different strategies, but I’d really like to see a variety of different ones for some inspiration. And it might also be a useful way to start a conversation with people who don’t currently give much thought to how/whether they should socialise with students.Report

Rebecca Kukla
Rebecca Kukla
Reply to  Natalie
5 years ago

Justin, I would love to see this too. I spend an enormous amount of time thinking about this and negotiating it. I feel like it’s a hugely tricky ongoing issue and we don’t talk about it nearly enough. I’ve been learning and I hope improving on this front for decades now, but there’s nothing straightforward about it.Report

Alan Nelson
Reply to  Natalie
5 years ago

A nice little thing my Department (UNC, Chapel Hill) does is sponsoring a “Take a philosopher to lunch” program. The Dept. picks up the tab for a student or small group of students to go to lunch on or very near campus. These are, of course, modest lunches without martinis, etc..Report

A.P. Sullivan
A.P. Sullivan
5 years ago

Simply regurgitating the student’s CV. Most likely, the admissions committee already has a copy of the CV. What the committee is looking for is a perspective on the student from the point of view of a professional, not something the students can say about themselves. Report

Adam
Adam
5 years ago

Didn’t Paul Grice get this right with his example of recommending a candidate for his/her very good handwriting? Speaking as someone with hopeless handwriting, I wish that I could have been recommended for anything on the grounds of my superb italic …..Report

S
S
Reply to  Adam
5 years ago

I actually read a letter recently commending an applicant on her speedy response to emails.Report

Alfred MacDonald
Alfred MacDonald
Reply to  Adam
5 years ago

It’s ridiculous that this does not have more likes.

Handwriting is as irrelevant in a post-laptop age as physique is.

Actually, I wonder how relevant typing speed is to someone’s success in a philosophy program, considering writing via laptop is far faster for anyone surpassing 30-40WPM (which is a lot of people). I’d imagine it’d be a factor all other things being equal, if you type 30-40WPM or below.

Certainly handwriting speed was a factor in my grades on exams. I couldn’t finish some exams because I wrote too slow and the teachers insisted on handwritten essays. It would be the difference between a B and an A, in most cases.Report

Ted
Ted
Reply to  Alfred MacDonald
5 years ago

The number of likes a candidate (or commenter) receives is as irrelevant to the quality of the comment (and commenter, and candidate) as handwriting is…Report

John Corvino
5 years ago

Don’t cut and paste from a letter you’ve written for another candidate. I once received a letter for an Assistant-Professor applicant whose writer, mid-letter, started referring to someone with an entirely different name. (And there was no reason to think that the Applicant had changed his name–it went from “Mike” to “Steve,” or something like that.) Which also serves as a reminder to proofread your letters, and maybe have another colleague do so as well.Report

Justin
Justin
Reply to  John Corvino
4 years ago

If you write several letters for PhD programs every year, there will be some cutting and pasting. But certainly one should mean what one says, and one should say it about the correct applicant.Report

Ed
Ed
5 years ago

What I found irritating is not how candidates were described, but rather when the writers made assumptions about our department and suggested they know better than us what we need (and this were not letters from big shots, or anything). Report

Mike Titelbaum
Mike Titelbaum
5 years ago

I once wrote in a recommendation letter, “If you’re looking for someone to do X, Y, and Z, so-and-so is the man for the job.” I was later told by a hiring committee member whom I like and respect that this came across as sexist.Report

Zara
Zara
Reply to  Mike Titelbaum
5 years ago

This example generates its own advice: check your letter over for the use of idioms and expressions that are, or could be interpreted as, sexist. Even if you’re recommending a man, “best man for the job” is probably sexist, since it kind of suggests that it’s a man’s job or that the competition is all men, or something like that. Another related piece of advise: read your letter over, and see whether you’d make the same or similar remarks for a candidate of a different gender. Certain words are gendered, whatever your own verbal habits: avoid “spunky”, “feisty”, etc.Report

Alfred MacDonald
Alfred MacDonald
Reply to  Zara
5 years ago

“Don’t be sexist” is a subset of a much larger principle of “be neutral or as unbiased as you can”, which you should be striving for long before you think to reach the sexism point.Report

Christopher Hitchcock
Reply to  Mike Titelbaum
5 years ago

Mike, were you subtly disguising the fact that you knew a woman who was better for the job? (I’ve always found People Magazine’s naming the “sexiest man alive” funny — it makes me wonder which dead men they think are sexier.) Report

Zara
Zara
5 years ago

Here’s a serious question: if you get a letter of reference like Rebecca Kukla is reporting on, should you or the relevant officer in your department contact anyone about it? The candidate? The referee? The Chair of the referee’s department? The Title IX office at the referee’s institution? Or should you just leave that can of worms unopened? Report

Crimlaw
Crimlaw
Reply to  Zara
5 years ago

Here’s a partial answer. You should not contact the Title IX office at the referee’s institution. Report

Rebecca Kukla
Rebecca Kukla
5 years ago

Crimlaw’s comment seems unnecessarily dismissive and unhelpful.

I did write to the writer of the first letter when I got it, with the support of the rest of the admissions committee. It was truly just way beyond the pale. We are currently discussing whether to write to the writer of the second letter. It is my view that more formal measures are as likely to hurt and humiliate the candidate as to do any good, but I do think there is value in calling this stuff out and letting people know that they are violating current norms pretty egregiously. My sense is that such letter writers live in bubbles and just literally don’t believe that ‘serious’ people are worried about all this feminism and harassment and equality business.
Report

Rebecca Kukla
Rebecca Kukla
Reply to  Rebecca Kukla
5 years ago

That was supposed to be a reply to Zara. Not sure how it managed not to embed.Report

Crimlaw
Crimlaw
Reply to  Rebecca Kukla
5 years ago

So you agree that one should not contact the letter writer’s Title IX office? Sorry you found that partial reply “unhelpful”Report

Rebecca Kukla
Rebecca Kukla
Reply to  Crimlaw
5 years ago

Yeah, I agree. But I also find reasons are typically a helpful addition to claims.Report

JT
JT
Reply to  Crimlaw
5 years ago

Trolololololol.Report

Stephen
Stephen
Reply to  Crimlaw
5 years ago

@Crimlaw: This is a philosophy blog. You should know better than to just assert something like that without some supporting rationale.Report

Alfred MacDonald
Alfred MacDonald
Reply to  Rebecca Kukla
5 years ago

“I do think there is value in calling this stuff out and letting people know that they are violating current norms pretty egregiously”

A violation of a norm doesn’t say they did anything wrong, otherwise nonconformity would be wrong on principle.

Clearly you do think it’s wrong, so you should just say that instead of saying they “violated a norm.”

The writer undeniably does live in a bubble, both because of the belief that physique is relevant and because “Women in philosophy” is such a melodramatic issue and the belief that linguistic/behavioral actions have more effect on the advancement of women than the psychology literature supports is extremely prevalent in philosophy departments, such that I don’t know how you could think one person or another would not freak out about anything sexual. This is especially when feminist philosophers equate mention of anything sexual with oppression and make the reification fallacy (via theories of objectification) a lot to justify this view. I wouldn’t ever, in a million years, think of mentioning physique to a philosophy department in light of views like this, since people who think this way are so common and are so sheltered from honest/direct discourse.

Most upper middle class academics are in a bubble though — in fact, arguably the whole middle class of America is, so this person happens to live in a harder bubble. Report

Patrick Mayer
Patrick Mayer
Reply to  Alfred MacDonald
5 years ago

I don’t think you understand what the term ‘norm’ means in most philosophical discussion. It is very common (I would say more common) in philosophy to use ‘norm’ in such a way that ‘X violated a norm’ means that ‘X behaved in a way that X ought not to have behaved.’ One uses ‘norm’ in this case to avoid having to take a stand on whether there are moral or non-moral reasons in favor of the behavior. You seem to be thinking of ‘norm’ as meaning ‘a way people tend to actually behave.’ That is the only way I can make sense of your inference “A violation of a norm doesn’t say they did anything wrong, otherwise nonconformity would be wrong on principle.” In my experience this is not how it is used in most philosophical discussion.Report

Alfred H MacDonald
Alfred H MacDonald
Reply to  Patrick Mayer
5 years ago

I’m aware of that usage. It doesn’t change anything, because the origin of “ought not to” is unclear and the author obviously intends this to mean something far more colloquial.Report

Patrick Mayer
Patrick Mayer
Reply to  Alfred H MacDonald
5 years ago

I imagine a great deal seems obvious to you. Perhaps a useful antidote to that confidence in your own perceptiveness is to think a bit more about the principle of charity in interpretation.Report

Michael Norton
Michael Norton
Reply to  Alfred MacDonald
5 years ago

For what it’s worth, I think you could have stopped after pointing out the clear irrelevance of an applicant’s appearance, without roundly dismissing concerns about the underrepresentation of women in the profession and the obstacles, appalling treatment, and juvenile BS that women philosophers do in fact face.Report

Alfred H MacDonald
Alfred H MacDonald
Reply to  Michael Norton
5 years ago

I could have, but I didn’t want to. Everything following “concerns about” is not a good paraphrase.Report

Rebecca Kukla
Rebecca Kukla
5 years ago

Wow, while this thread is unfolding I just read a letter from a senior male philosopher that referred to the female candidate’s physique and then made a joke about trying to beat her up. So, er, don’t do that either.Report

Roberta Millstein
5 years ago

I have a question rather than a suggestion. I have come to believe that how hard someone works is one of the best predictors of how well they will do in grad school. Yet I have read that this is something we aren’t supposed to say; I guess it can come off as weaker than saying they are “brilliant” or some such (even though in my experience this is a less good predictor of success in grad school). Thoughts?Report

Alfred MacDonald
Alfred MacDonald
Reply to  Roberta Millstein
5 years ago

If it is a predictor of success in grad school yet it is not something you are supposed to say, this would suggest that the views of what you are supposed to say are not aligned with what is true.Report

Roberta Millstein
Reply to  Alfred MacDonald
5 years ago

Right. The views of what I am supposed to say are not aligned with what I believe to be true. And yet, I do not want to harm the students I am writing for by saying things that others will see as weak praise.Report

Michael Kremer
Michael Kremer
Reply to  Roberta Millstein
5 years ago

I think you should not just say they work hard, but provide examples to show how their hard work has paid off in ways that bode well for success in graduate school. Emphasize not just their personal qualities but what they have accomplished and why this makes them a good candidate. Most of my students work hard, but few will succeed in a PhD program. Show how and why your student is not one of the many.Report

Roberta Millstein
Reply to  Michael Kremer
5 years ago

That’s a good suggestion, Michael – thank you.Report

Rebecca Kukla
Rebecca Kukla
Reply to  Roberta Millstein
5 years ago

My sense is that the ‘works hard’ thing is at risk of hurting faculty job applicants more than grad school applicants. I guess maybe that’s because anyone who makes it through grad school works hard and can get through a major project requiring discipline, so at that stage, mentioning hard work has unfortunate gricean implicatures. But there are lots and lots of bright undergrads who don’t have what it takes to buckle down and get through a dissertation, so knowing that one is hard working really is relevant.Report

Roberta Millstein
Reply to  Rebecca Kukla
5 years ago

Good point, Rebecca.Report

Christopher Hitchcock
Reply to  Roberta Millstein
5 years ago

I suspect that there are near-synonyms that would work better: motivated, energetic, passionate about philosophy, self-disciplined…Report

Roberta Millstein
Reply to  Christopher Hitchcock
5 years ago

Hmm, I’ll think about those, Chris, thanks.Report

Alfred MacDonald
Alfred MacDonald
5 years ago

“I don’t think letters of recommendation matter, but I am writing this because this student deserves to get in, even though by writing this letter I am furthering a system that I don’t think should exist in the first place and lets you continue to feel justified in weighting factors unrigorously and perhaps even irrationally, with limited statistical or empirical support for this practice.”

Yet this is exactly what I would want to write in support of a student if I was writing one.

Letters of recommendation allow for far too much bias to enter the application process. They shouldn’t exist in the first place, especially if you’re concerned about equal (unbiased) treatment of applicants.Report

sm
sm
5 years ago

I only encountered this type of comment regarding female job applicants — never male job applicants — so my assumption is that this is another example of oblivious sexist talk: describing female applicants as “nice,””friendly,” “helpful,” “cooperative,” etc. When I mentioned this to the (male) search chair, he yelled at me and said it was relevant information about “collegiality.”

Also, don’t talk about yourself and your own work more than the applicant’s work.Report

some person or other
some person or other
4 years ago

I know this thread is from nearly a year ago, but: this cycle I read a letter which, among other things, described a female candidate as a “sweet friend”.

The author of this letter was also a woman.

^%$#.Report