Monday, February 02, 2015

Yes of Course your Course is Rigorous, if you say so

If you write recommendation letters for undergraduate students applying for graduate school, internships, and the like, have you ever included the fact that the student got a good grade in your rigorous, challenging, demanding class?

And if you wrote that, did you back it up with data? Or did you mention the fact that your entire institution is so uber-prestigious that the students are all super-smart, ergo, anyone getting a high grade in your rigorous class is exceptional?

I don't think I have ever described one of my own classes like this. Perhaps my classes are not rigorous. Perhaps I don't think my saying so would be compelling, even if they are. 

So, how do you feel about reading recommendation letters in which someone describes their own course as rigorous (challenging etc.)? Are you convinced by this? If not, what would convince you? Data? That the student was only one of (specified low number) out of (moderate to high number) to get a (high grade) in a course? 

Some (few) institutions give some useful information in transcripts about grade distribution and class size, but most do not. So we are left with the self-described rigorous professors to guide us.

Perhaps I sound a bit cranky about this. I am not really all that cranky about it. Compared to the heartfelt stories of inspiring uncles and chemistry kits that inspired the applicants as children to pursue a passion for science, including graduate study, the self-described rigor -- although surprisingly common -- is more amusing than annoying. 

(And I certainly don't hold it against the applicants, who are, after all, typically have few choices of letter writers and know nothing of the letter-writing skills of their referees.)


Anonymous said...

I say this and back it up with data when writing a letter of recommendation to an institution in another country.

There is no reason to believe they are aware of how competitive our program is, particularly when the university as whole is a bit spotty.

In fact, in a different setting I had one BSD tell me to my face: "well my institution is number 1 in my country in my field", to which I had to reply "well so is mine".

Anonymous said...

I often see "challenging" but not "rigorous" in letters. I take such a statement as a mildly positive signal, but it doesn't have a strong effect on my decision.

That being said, usually the courses referred to as challenging tend to be the math-heavy courses in the major. So the statements are believable.

Anonymous said...

I'm afraid I'm guilty of this - when I have very little knowledge of the applicant, I try to improve the context for his or her grades by describing the course(s) the student took with me (rigorous is not used, though). At the very least, I'm pleased to hear that I can bring a smile to the letter reader's face (seriously).

Mark said...

I have occasionally described the content of my course, if it went into more advanced territory than a reader would necessarily expect. But I leave out "challenging" or "rigorous" and let the reader draw their own conclusion.

qaz said...

I take all recommendation letters to be little more than endorsements unless there are specific examples. ("Did well in rigorous class" is not a specific example. "Wrote a term paper on the hard-to-understand and esoteric field of bunny hopping that was the best I've seen in a dozen years" is.)

Generally, "did well in class" letters are nearly useless for getting into our graduate program. Research letters that are specific are necessary.

a physicist said...

I try to back up whatever statements I make with data when possible.

One bit of information I often include is that I teach an intro science course for pre-med students, and at my school students typically take my course as third-year students -- after they have survived several other intro science courses in other fields. Especially when I write a recommendation letter for a first or second year students who take my course, I emphasize that their competition is these third-year students and so that makes the grade earned by the younger student even better than it might sound. Although, come to think of it, I've never actually provided the data on the exact fraction of the class that are in their 3rd year. I do have this data, maybe I should be adding it.

But no, I avoid the word "rigorous".

Anonymous said...

I only talk about my course content when I have nothing to say about the student or when the skills from the class are directly transferable to what the student is applying to.

Anonymous said...

As "qaz" said, "did well in my course" is damning with faint praise. (Of course, letters from industry are even worse, being essentially contentless and interchangeable.) We want to see evidence that the student is capable of doing research and writing about it.

I tell students to write drafts of letters of recommendation and provide them to the faculty they want recommendations from. The faculty can ignore the drafts, but the drafts do usually set a lower bound on the quality of the resulting letter.

Prof J said...

I teach a course that emphasized technical communication skills. I point this out in letters to indicate that I have some evidence for insight into .... Technical communication skills.

Anonymous said...

I will, yes. In context, I also teach two courses in the same general subject area to different target audiences, one of which is much more rigorous than the other. The grades therefore mean different things, and participation in the more rigorous course allows me to better assess the student's understanding in that subject area.

Also, context helps reinforce that I don't allow significant grade inflation.

Anonymous said...

I say a "rigorous methods course involving X, Y, and Z" as it is not clear from the decades-old course title that the course focuses on methodology. It's also the 2nd course in a sequence, so I would say "introductory" if describing that initial course. Weirdly enough, some have commented finding this description helpful. I suppose I describe the course as such so that when people actually deal with the applicant and see they know something it reflects well on the accuracy of my letters

dolce vita said...

One of my letter writers told me when he wrote my letter that he tried to leave out 'rigorous' and 'challenging' when it came to coursework, but pointed out that I was taking upper level courses a year or two early, and how I was using his courses and others to help with my lab work. I think if the applicant makes it clear to his/her letter writer exactly what benefit he/she got out of the course/experience for future grad school, it might help make these letters stronger.

Or at least, that's been the experience at my grad school when my mentors/program directors look at letters.

Alex said...

I recently wrote a letter where, among other things, I provided context for a transcript. I said things like "He took the more advanced version of [course in a different but related subject], the one for majors rather than GE credit, and got an A" or "He admittedly got one B+ [during a term where he had some other relevant accomplishments outside the classroom on top of his excellent grades] but it was from the toughest grader in the department [not me]".

Anonymous said...

I just read a letter that explained that even though the student's grades were below average, because the institution is so prestigious and the courses are all so rigorous all the students there are automatically above average so the applicant is actually above average. Maybe the student would succeed in grad school but I did not think much of this argument.

Anonymous said...

. Maybe the student would succeed in grad school but I did not think much of this argument.

Why? Let's use an example from outside the world of academia: the average Real Madrid or Barcelona player would be the main star in any other team. This is a perfectly accurate observation.

Do I detect a bit of sour grapes perhaps in you dismissing this very statistically valid statement?

One can surely state with confidence, say, that most Harvard students would be top 10% in most other universities (the other elite institutions being the exception).

Mark P said...

Mea culpa :) I do at least discuss what we expect them to learn, but I admit I make my class sound difficult (see below--and I think it is challenging). UNC is currently moving toward "contextualized grading, in which transcripts that not only report the student’s letter grade but would also place this alongside the median grade in the section and percentile range from the median. I like this idea, though implementation is slow both to make sure we get it right and because of some push back.
Mark P

"I met XX this spring, when he took Bio 445, Cancer Biology, a small upper-level class co-taught by Dr. YY and I. Our goal is to get the students familiar with important issues in cell and developmental biology, by framing these in the context of cancer. XX was one of only thirty-four students, a highly select group as the class was quite popular among those registering that fall. Our class had some very demanding requirements. In our lectures, we introduced not only the “facts” but also the experimental approaches behind them, often in much more detail than the students had encountered in earlier classes. In addition, students were expected to read and discuss the primary scientific literature, further testing their analytical and critical skills. Finally, all of the students had to research a topic in cancer biology and present a PowerPoint presentation to the class. Many students found this an extremely difficult challenge. The group of students assembled for this class was a very impressive one. Essentially all of the students were seniors, and many of them were our Department’s very best majors. One-third of the students, including XX, were doing honors research in Biology. XX did very well even in this select group.

Mark P said...

PS Of course the letters we write for the students who did research in our labs are much more useful, as we can provide specific details and examples. However, most programs require three letters and its very tough for an undergrad to get three from folks who know them well. When reviewing grad school applicants I largely ignore the "extra letters"
Mark P

Anonymous said...

Anonymous at 10.43pm,

I think what they mean is that doing well in coursework is not a great predictor of research success.

It helps that a grad student knows their undergrad theory, but I've seen A-star undergrads mess up basic practical techniques, or prove incapable of thinking for themselves about solving a straightforward research problem (i.e., they can't tie their theory to the practical). I've also seen students who don't have straight A-grades on their transcript prove really adept in the lab and can get good results in a reliable, prompt fashion.

Female Science Professor said...

That's how I interpreted that comment as well and I agree with it based on my experience with advising. At the same time, I sympathize with letter writers who are trying to put a good spin on what looks like an iffy application (although I, too, don't find it convincing).

Anonymous said...


All I can say is you misread the original post. The student hadn't done well in the course. So the letter if anything was along your lines of thinking.

Again, I don't see anything specious that the "average" top-10% academically is much more likely to do well than the average among the entire population, even though as you say, correlation isn't exactly 1.

Douglas Natelson said...

I'll admit, I do this. I've been teaching the honors track of our first year physics for a few years, and I do think it's important to make the point that this class is genuinely hard compared to regular calc-based physics. I back this up by explaining which book I use and what it entails. While this may sound snobby, wouldn't I be doing the students a disservice if I didn't point out that the class is taught on the level of the same class at MIT, and that an A means something?