You might think that I have exhausted the topic of Letters of Recommendation, and perhaps I actually have and don't know it, but something else that caught my eye in the LoRs involves the attempt by a LoR writer to praise a candidate by stating that the candidate is smarter than the person writing the letter.
Perhaps some will find this refreshing. Professors being modest! Professors admitting that some students are smarter than they are!
But there's a potential problem with this approach. It's not that we don't believe the letter writer. The problem is that we do, and this might undermine the writer's attempt to praise the applicant.
The context is important, of course, in how the letter is evaluated at the other end. Is the not-as-smart-as-the-student professor someone we all know and respect as a scholar? In that case, we are impressed.
Or do we not know this person and therefore don't know whether to be impressed or, more likely, not?
On reading such a letter from an unknown professor, some have remarked "What kind of education could the not-as-smart professor have given the smarter student?". I am not one who worries about this. There are lots of very smart students, and I think it entirely possible for not-as-smart professors to provide a good education to smarter students because, presumably, even if a certain professor has a lower IQ or GRE scores or however you want to measure "smart", that professor has accumulated more knowledge about a particular topic than the student and may even have developed considerable skill at conveying that knowledge.
This reminds me of a conversation I had, early in my professor career, with a first year MS student who was contemplating working with me. After explaining something to him, he said to me "You seem to think you know more than I do*, but we're the same age, so how can that be?" Well.. I guess if you ignore my years as a PhD student, a postdoc, and a professor, maybe you could say that we should have theoretically acquired exactly the same amount of knowledge during our equal number of years of existence on this planet. In fact, what I secretly thought was not even then (in this particular case).
Anyway, I don't personally mind the "this student is smarter than I am" approach to LoR writing, but some of my colleagues have a different view of such statements in LoRs. So, in general, I advise resisting the urge to include such statements in a LoR unless you are widely known for being brilliant, or at least very smart.
* Actually, what he really said was "You seem to know more than me", which was also a true statement.
6 months ago