Friday, September 30, 2011

Teach me to be mean

As you know, I'm the sweetest, kindest person on earth, with never an unkind word for anyone. But one of the things I have to do today is write a tepid letter of recommendation for a student's grad school applications.

The student got Bs in both the classes it took with me, and produced a course project indicating no understanding of experimental design or data analysis. It also appeared to spend every class on Facebook. So when it approached me to write a letter for it, I explained that the letter would not be a good one. I reviewed the facts above. I urged it to find someone else, and even went through various possibilities with it. Turns out it truly didn't have any better options, so in the end I agreed to write the letter, with the understanding that a tepid letter is better than no letter at all. That is, the student genuinely wants me to write a tepid letter.

Okay. When I sit down to write it, though, I kinda have NO IDEA how to approach the whole thing. Worse yet, it's applying to my former PhD program, and for whatever reason, this makes me feel extra self-conscious about the whole thing. I fear the easy way out will be to emphasize its good qualities and say nothing about the important lacunae in its skill set. I know there are a couple of experienced academics who visit me here, and I could sure use your advice. And those of you in other areas, perhaps you've encountered the same quandary in your fields? (And yes, I'll ask my senior colleagues, too, but what do they know that THE INTERNET does not?)


  1. i'm basically faking this whole academia game, and the only student i've had ask me in this situation did find someone else, but i don't think it's wholly ethical to ignore the lacunae. you could out them in dependent clauses, though. ("although student x had some challenges with higher level thought, he always maintained a cheerful disposition and often evidenced successful operation of his mitochondria.")

  2. I have NO clue what in the hell I'd do. I'm actually terrible at being mean. I wish I was tougher sometimes but its that damn Minnesota passive aggressive genetic make up I have.

  3. Not much help from me. We did peer reviews at work and you're supposed to ask ppl who will write you good ones. One chic I worked with was dumb as shit but the nicest girl alive. So I basically said just that. I cannot lie.

  4. Yes! Like Bionic said. Sort of: While It had had the attention span of a gnat, It did smell nice.

    The JB is an academic, (not a closely guarded secret, I realise) and deals with this mediocrity all the time. Standards have to be held up - not fair to the ones that make an effort, if not.

    Easy for me to say, of course.

  5. Oh, I just wrote one today for a former grad student with a serious personality disorder. I like to use the 'read btw the lines' approach. I say good things but drop hints such as 'one of X's challenges is writing coherently. X is aware of this and is working hard to remedy.' The letters read nicely if you skim them, and have red flags everywhere if you don't. I figure if a potential advisor doesn't look for red flags, they deserve my psycho students ;)

  6. Ugh. Poor student. Poor, stupid student. I did turns on the admissions committee at my academic institution and here are my thoughts.

    Use lots and lots of code phrases. It's helpful to use the shit sandwich approach, too, to say a few nice things first and end with "I wish this person all the best and hope you make a thoughtful admission decision" or somesuch. It's like putting a bow on a turd and calling it a gift, but whatever.

    Some of my favorite codes:

    "...with appropriate supervision/guidance..."
    "...put forth admirable effort..."
    "...displayed genuine interest in..."
    "...may continue/strive to improve..."

    Or, just make the letter extremely short (this is always a dead giveaway) and place the student in the appropriate ranking/percentile of your classes as a whole. Then it's scientific and shit. I also love it when the recommendation states, "Perhaps other recommendations for this applicant will help shed further light on his/her qualifications," which more or less demonstrates that this is a pity letter.

  7. I totally agree with JB. I usually go the very short route and I especially love the "perhaps other recommendations..." line. On one occasion I declined and said student went to department chair and made me look like an ass so I decided to include in the short letter that I had to write that said student faced the challenge of the demand of social networking during class and was still able to maintain a B- average, thus said student obviously is very good at multitasking. Yeah I'm a bitch when I need to be I guess.

    My brother always goes round and round about this and ends up BSing for the student because he feels compelled to. This pisses me off because those students are the ones that were in your PhD program and you wondered how the hell they got there. But as we know all too well, some do have it easier in life than others. My advice is to be as honest as possible in a very short letter.

    Good luck!

  8. This has happened to me several times, and after struggling to write a lukewarm letter, I now refuse students' requests for letters unless I know I can write glowing ones. That being said, you've already agreed to do it, so I would encourage you to be honest. Definitely mention this student's strengths, but be honest about his/her weaknesses. I usually frame criticism of a student by acknowledging that I think the student has potential, but perhaps needs another year or two to mature and to gain life experience. That way, you can be honest, but you still end on a hopeful note. Good luck!

  9. I have been through this a couple of times and my MEAN always read more like not-totally-enthusiastic. You got some good suggestions here. Mine were indeed short and very matter of fact: "I have known x for y years. I taught b class and he received a C. He never discussed grad school with me until he realized that he had no other options in life....."

    OK, I might have added that last sentence just now. For your own conscience, you can do your best to talk about the student's strengths but try to kindly address the major weaknesses as you see them. Also, just in case they are seriously on the fence about him, you can encourage them to contact you directly if they have further questions. It is so much easier to be honest in a one-on-one conversation.

    The good thing is that, and you probably already know this, it is very obvious to anyone reading these things that there is major letter inflation. I only served on an admissions committee once and I remember that the good students had long glowing letters that were dripping with superlatives. The "good" letters were pretty practically red flags.

  10. I'd skip the coded language and just tell it like it is. If this person is "above average" or "mostly competent" or "fairly likely to complete in the program," then just say that. I've only written one letter like that. In the future, when you write a glowing letter for someone applying to the same department, it'll carry a lot of weight.

    A funny story: A colleague was pressed to write a letter for a crappy student applying to medical school. All she could honestly say for him was that he really, truly, honestly wanted to go to medical school. He didn't get in. Punchline: He got an MBA instead and became a hospital administrator.

  11. Oh no. This has happened to me and I never know exactly what to do. The student is delirious. Does it not understand the concept of a competitive grad school program? And the fact that there's nobody else for it to ask...that pretty much says it all. You are its best bet. But that's not YOUR fault, it's its.

    You could go either way, either coded and lukewarm or frank and devastating. I think I'd include both the grade you gave AND the conversation you had. The student sounds very much like s/he is going through the motions here (perchance some overeager parents who want it safely in a grad school somewhere?). That's going to show in the transcript, the summary of goals, etc.. And so I think you're entitled to be as lukewarm in the letter as you are in reality. The really ANNOYING thing is that you have to spend time on something like this. For a serious, good student, I'll drop just about anything to write a bang-up rec. But this is like pulling teeth.

    (Sorry this is late).

  12. This is far too late, I realize, but I use the coded, read between the lines approach like many of your other commenters. And I always throw in at least one clearly honest line so that I feel like a careful reader will really GET it.

    I hate being put in such an awkward position. But when I applied to grad school fir the MA, I was one of these tepid students. I'm still grateful for my recommenders. I'm sure they were honest (I was flatly rejected by my first choice schools), but they must have conveyed a but of promise, and all these years later, I made good on their one or two hopeful sentences.