Monday, February 08, 2010


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.


Anonymous said...

Does this comment only apply to general statements like "this student is smart overall" or does it apply to specific instances of "smartness"? I haven't written many LoR but I have sometimes included a statement along the lines of "in designing this study/ analysing this data / writing this paper, student X had an insight I hadn't had yet". So this implies student X was smarter, at least when thinking about this one question. It never occurred to me that this kind of praise would make me look dumb or be unhelpful to the student, but am I wrong?

Female Science Professor said...

That kind of statement is fine. I was referring to things like "Her GRE scores are higher than mine!" or "He did better in [class for majors] than I did as a student!".

Anonymous said...

FSP this is a particularly boring post. Usually I enjoy reading your blog over breakfast, but this does nothing but inform people to proofread their LoR.

EliRabett said...

The better approach might be that "given the excellent training you can provide I have no doubt that this very bright student can go further than I have, which considering the contribution we at X college have made to her career would make us very proud

Average Professor said...

I recently wrote a LoR for a student applying for an NSF graduate fellowship. The LoR instructions requested me to compare the applicant to other NSF fellows I have known. But the only other NSF fellow I have worked with in any substantive capacity is me. I am not sure making such a comparison was worthwhile, because how objectively could I really evaluate myself, but, I do think the applicant was more self-assured research-wise(in a beneficial way) than I was at that stage of my career, so I said so.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

FSP this is a particularly boring post. Usually I enjoy reading your blog over breakfast, but this does nothing but inform people to proofread their LoR.

Yeah, FSP. BORING! You should totally stop being boring or shut down this blog, cause I say so. Oh, and you smell! And your cat is ugly!

Female Science Professor said...

Actually, I was more struck by this part:

this does nothing but inform people to proofread their LoR.

which has nothing to do with what I wrote.

Anonymous said...

"this does nothing but inform people to proofread their LoR."

I think anon @ 7:58 was trying to say the writer of the LoR should proofread their letter so they do not say anything in the letter that might be looked at the wrong way.

CPP, you are a goofball, keep up the nonsensical comments!

Female Science Professor said...

I think that faculty who write "Bob's GRE scores are even higher than mine" know exactly what they are writing, although they may not know it won't necessarily be interpreted as they intend. The suggestions in the comments, however, are examples of much more reasonable ways to praise a student by comparison with yourself.

John Vidale said...

The anon@7:58 post has nothing to offer, and should have fallen victim to judicious moderation. Maybe save it for a column on boorish and ignorant blog behavior - there must be reams of material for that stored in FSP's archives.

The smarter-than-me comment is tricky, as FSP points out. I think it needs to be followed up by specifics in which the person being flattered accomplishes unusual and impressive feats, which even the respectable reviewer and better still the reader cannot.

The file is presumably providing a detailed picture of the candidate. The logical result of reading such flattery for a less-than-stellar case is thinking the reviewer either lacks judgment or is dishonest.

Kevin said...

I've only met about half a dozen students who I think were smarter than me (I have a pretty robust ego), so I've never been tempted to say that in a letter of recommendation.

I have been asked to compare students with other fellowship holders (including fellowships I have held), and I have been able to do that fairly.

Of course, most students who ask me for letters of recommendation realize that I will write an honest appraisal of their skills, not a flattering puff piece, so only the top (and occasionally bottom) students ask me for letters.

I have the students write a first draft of the letter, including detailed descriptions of what they have done, then I edit the letter to adjust the tone (in some cases moderating excessive puffery, in other cases adding in appropriate positive adjectives).

The letters I like (both to read and to write) are those that provide a factual description of the applicant's work on relevant projects, in a way that encourages the reader to make valid inferences about how they will work on future projects.

Charles Sutton said...

FSP this is a particularly boring post.

Well, I think this blog post is even better than mine!

Hope said...

So this is all about ego. The people who write these kinds of things think that of course, this is the best compliment they can pay their student, because everyone knows how smart they are. And the faculty who have a hard time with these statements perhaps are not fond of thinking that some of their students are indeed smarter than they are?

But I agree with your advice – best to steer clear of this sort of thing, unless you are very famous. For this same reason, I never make self-deprecating remarks before a talk in order to try to endear myself to my audience. And I advise other young women (including the not-so-young who look much younger) to do the same.

Anonymous said...

I had teachers in high school and college that would say that we students were smarter than they are. For example: "You guys did so well on this test, but I expected that because you are all smarter than me." I always understood this to be an attempt at a complement that actually made the teachers seem to have little confidence in themselves.
In the context of LoRs, I would not have the same trust in a writer to judge the subject of the letter if they have very little trust in their own abilities. They may think highly of the subject, but only in skewed comparison to themselves.
On the other hand, if the writer were famously smart (whatever that means), I would probably be impressed with a similar statement in a LoR.

Anonymous said...

Why is it a bad thing for the student to be "smarter" than the prof/adviser? The prof/adviser may have a fancy job title, a steady paycheck, a lab with students, etc. but that does not mean the student cannot be equally as smart (or more smart) than the prof. In my experience, most profs are not as "smart" as they think they are.

astroboy-moreno said...

If my students are not smart enough (i.e., like me), perhaps is time to tell them to quit trying to be like me and leave the field?

gillyweed said...

Why is it a bad thing for the student to be "smarter" than the prof/adviser?

It's not bad for a student to be smarter than a prof/adviser. The point is that if phrased poorly, instead of making the student sound impressive, a well intentioned statement of this sort may instead make the referee sound less intelligent and less credible, thus undermining what was meant to be a positive letter of reference. There is a reason we choose experts to write such recommendations for us, LoR are only as good as their sources.

Anonymous said...

Kevin: I find it strange and borderline unethical that you ask your students to write a draft of their letter of recommendations. Maybe there is a better explanation, but is it because you're too busy to write such a letter yourself, or because you don't know the achievements of the students well enough?

Even if you edit the letter afterwards, as the recipient of the letter, I definitely would not trust the letter as much if I knew the student wrote it.

John Vidale said...

For LoR, I ask students to give me their CV and statement of purpose, and only a draft of the letter if it is for some legal purpose, such as immigration paperwork, which has mysterious criteria it must meet.

1) Students can't generally write a good letter of reference - they don't know the structure, the components, nor the specialized verbiage. 2) My friends would not react well to a letter purporting to come from me, but not in my style. 3) I doubt the students can write a suite of letters in different styles. Packets of too-similar letters are a criteria for deeply discounting an application, and I have seen it done.

If I don't know the students well, either I won't write, or the letter will be very short.

Hope said...

If I ask someone for a LoR and they tell me to write a draft, I am likely to ask someone else. I don’t have a problem providing my reference a copy of my resume (and Statement of Purpose, if applicable) and/or a bulleted list of applicable accomplishments, to jog their memory. But an actual draft? I’d rather put a hole in my head!

I’d be nervous that the person was going to take the easy way out and just forward my letter w/out much editing. And I agree w/John that students writing their own letters is not a good idea. (Talk about something that could backfire ….)

I wonder if all the profs out there who make it a practice to ask students for drafts had to provide all of the letter-writers in their career w/drafts. I see writing LoR’s as just another part of a prof’s job – like research and teaching. Should we start asking students to write drafts of their course syllabus and assignments?

Lora said...

That reminds me of several guys I dated in high school, who always tried to compliment me by saying, "you are so much smarter than me". Didn't work in that context either.

Kevin said...

I understand the concern about having students write a draft of a letter of reference, and I agree that it could easily backfire on a student. Here are some of my justifications for the practice, and what I do to keep it from becoming the problem it could be.

1) I am very slow at writing the first draft of anything. I am much faster and more effective at editing a draft, even if massive changes are needed. Thus the letter is much more likely to be completed on time if I have a draft to work from. This is a weakness of mine that asking the students for a first draft is a workaround for, not an ideal situation.

2) I teach students how to write letters of recommendation in one of the classes that generates the most requests for letters. Thus I am not asking them to do an unfamiliar task for which they are not trained, but to show me that they learned something in the class.

3) I often get requests from students who had classes from me 5 or even 10 years earlier. Having them write a first draft which describes what they did with me reminds me of who they are and what they did that was worthy of recommendation. It would take me an extra hour or two to comb through my old files to find the corresponding information, and I could easily overlook something.

4) I have a hard time remembering names and associating names and faces. Having a student ask me verbally for a recommendation does not provide me with enough information always to remember who they are, even when we have worked fairly closely for a while. Again, requesting a draft of the letter is a workaround for my disability, not an ideal situation.

5) I have very high standards for letters that go out over my signature, and will *always* edit them to be in my style and to say things that I agree with whole-heartedly. Thus the risk that a letter from me will not reflect my true opinion or will sound too much like another letter for the same student is very small. (Incidentally, when I teach students about letters of reference, I do warn them of the risk of faculty signing drafts without editing them, so that they don't give 2 recommenders similar drafts to start from.)

Hope said...

@Kevin: I appreciate your honesty, but it sounds like you have some shortcomings that you need to address – and *not* by shifting the burden onto your students. Do you have any idea how hard it is to write an effusive letter about yourself pretending to be someone else? Is this what you teach them in that class?

And while I appreciate #5, how would I, as a student, know that that is your policy?

I’ve never understood how profs rationalize the practice of “editing” someone else’s words and then signing off as sole author.

In short, you owe your students more than that, and you know it! The only reason you do this is because you can get away with it.

Anonymous said...

Even Roger Federer has a coach. For those of you who don't follow tennis: he is the best tennis player ever to walk the earth. Yet he has a coach. Presumably that coach is able to help him. I'm sure the coach would write that Roger Federer is even better at tennis than he is. Fact is, a lot of what we have over our students is just plain experience, not necessarily a pure intellectual advantage. One of my graduate students is definitely smarter than I am, but I probably won't put that in his letters!

Anonymous said...

I don't see it as a problem to say "this student had higher grades/GREs than me when I was a student". The reader may look at the student's transcript and make a judgment on you knowing that you scored lower but so what, you are not the one being considered for the job, you already have a job!

Anonymous said...

when I was applying for postdoc fellowships, and afterward when I was applying for jobs, all of my letter writers including my own PhD advisor, and later my postdoc advisors insisted that I write my own letter of recommendation and send it to them as a draft. They said this is standard practice and that not providing your letter writers with a draft is making a huge imposition on them (and is thus against professional etiquette).

Anonymous said...

I am a student currently going through the admissions process. My thesis advisor asked me to write a draft of his LOR which was definitely awkward. I took a letter that one of his PRAs wrote me for a scholarship and adjusted to grad school admissions. This professor took the draft and completely rewrote the letter to be an amazingly wonderful letter. I think that writing a first draft can work out as long as the first draft looks nothing like the final letter!

Anonymous said...

'XYZ is smarter than me', really doesn't say much. 'XYZ is smarter than I', at least implies XYZ knows his/her subject-verb agreement rules.

Kevin said...

"'XYZ is smarter than me', really doesn't say much. 'XYZ is smarter than I', at least implies XYZ knows his/her subject-verb agreement rules."

Actually, Anonymous has hyper-corrected here. "XYZ is smarter than me" is grammatically correct, as is "XYZ is smarter than I am," but "XYZ is smarter than I" is not.

John Vidale said...

Any of "than me", "than I", or "than I am" is correct, and anyone whose eye is distracted by such grammatical minutia is unlikely to see the big picture.