If regular visitors to this blog are starting to get the impression that I spend a lot of time reading letters of reference and pondering their myriad intricacies, that's because I spend a lot of time reading letters of reference and being amazed at what I read.
Today I am thinking about the unfortunate situation in which an apparently talented student had only 1 of 3 reference letter writers who took time and care with their reference letter. The other 2 wrote brief and uninformative letters.
I can understand writing a brief and uninformative letter if your only interaction with the student has been in a lecture-based course. Some students ask me for letters and I tell them that I would not be the best choice because I can't say much more than what is apparent on the transcript, e.g. Bob got an A in my class last semester. But sometimes they have no choice because that has been the extent of their interaction with all or most of their professors.
I can bulk up a letter a bit by talking about how rigorous my course was and how only 2 students got A's in the class and Bob was one of those. I can say that Bob asked insightful questions in class. But that's still just a paragraph.
So I can kind of sympathize with one of the short letters, which was written by someone who probably only had the student in one class and didn't have a lot more to say than what is in that paragraph.
The other letter, however, annoyed me because I think it is a form letter. There are various form-letteresque aspects of it, but what caught my eye (and that of other faculty reading the letter) is the use of the pronoun "his" in part of the letter. The applicant is a "her".
It is possible that the letter-writer just slipped up because 94% of the letters he writes are for male students and he didn't check over his letter and he was really tired because he had to write 37 letters of reference for students who only gave him a few days notice before their urgent deadlines and he didn't know this particular student all that well and the head gasket in his car needs replacing and that is expensive and his cat may be suffering from seasonal affective disorder.
I can try to not be so annoyed with the careless and uninformative letter-writer. But I will fail. I will fail because these letters are important. This student's chances of admissions to a graduate program will likely not be harmed, but in a competitive pool, an applicant with impressive letters may prevail over an applicant with vague letters. An applicant with impressive letters may also be at an advantage for fellowships and other funding.
Fortunately in this particular case, the applicant had a successful research experience with one faculty; the one who wrote the most detailed letter. One really good and detailed letter goes a long way towards making up for the other, uninformative letters. Also, admissions committees understand that not all letter writers are conscientious and/or nice people and this is not the applicant's fault.
In general, letters are not that useful anyway, but we still need to see them just in case. Ideally, what we see will be an honest and thoughtful appraisal, not a form letter.
4 hours ago