The other day, an unnamed professor of unspecified gender who teaches at an unnamed university said to me, referring to an early point in his or her career: “That was when I thought that you’re supposed to tell the truth in recommendation letters.”
I didn’t press the point, but I think I had a sense of what he (or she) meant. For me, writing such letters—and I write scores of them a year—is a ticklish issue. It balances various and varying responsibilities I feel: to the truth (considerable), to the recommendee (variable, but always significant), and to the institution or company that has asked for my opinion (moderate).
Each year, roughly 75 distinct individuals spend time in my classrooms. Usually, four or five are outstanding, and if any of this group asks me to write recommendations for jobs or grad school, I am actually happy. Coming out of the University of Delaware, they are one step behind their contemporaries from Ivy League-type schools, and I enjoy having the chance to try to even the playing field, or at least make it a little less tilted, by honestly saying that they were among the best students I have ever had in (now) eighteen years of teaching, and similar gushing. Sometimes I even grab the letter-reader by the lapels and say something along the lines of, “If you hire this person, I guarantee, you will never regret it.”
The next group consists of maybe 15-20 students who have shown some notable achievement in the course of study or outside of class, or who are impressively intelligent, or who I feel are really good people—note I say “or,” not “and.” With these folks, we are in Tell-the-truth-but-but-not-the-whole-truth territory. I certainly don’t want to rave about them, if only because that would have a cry-wolf effect on my sincere raves for Group One. So it becomes about the finesse. I specify some particular assignment I recall the student did a good job on, or go on for a paragraph about a sterling attribute (hopefully not on the level of punctuality, good grooming, or fluency in English) and invoke formulations like, “I have no doubt that [name of student] will do an outstanding job at [name of institution].”
The problem with this group comes not in the statements I’m asked to write but in the rankings I’m asked to provide. Normally, a recommender is given a list of seven or eight qualities—academic motivation, maturity, and so on—and asked to rate the student on a scale along the lines of: top 2% of all students I’ve taught, next 5%, next 5%, next 10%, and so on. I love this with Group One—just check the first box all the way down. But with Group Two, if I were completely truthful, it would look bad—and I do feel more loyalty to these students than to X grad school or Y public relations firm. When I can, I say something to the effect of, “As a personal policy, I do not rank students. Please see attached statement.” But sometimes, you can’t complete an electronic recommendation without filling in this stuff. In those cases, I usually alternate check marks in the top three categories, and rationalize it by telling myself, “The people set up their form in such a dumb way, they don’t deserve the truth.”
Skipping over a student group, there are usually 15-20 people who have either made a negative impression on me, or have made no impression at all. In the rare cases when one of them asks for a recommendation, I truthfully say something like, “I think I would not able to write you a helpful letter. I suggest you ask someone else.”
That leaves one more group, the toughest of all. They were not great achievers in the classroom, have no impressive accomplishments, are smack dab in the middle of the pack. Yet (I predict) they will do reasonably well in this particular job or graduate program, and may grow to the point where they’ll do a good job. They certainly deserve a shot. Moreover, I was paid to be their teacher, and that includes (I believe) trying to help them make their way in the world. Those last three sentences are between you and me. I wouldn’t include them in any recommendation letter, because they would surely damn with lukewarm praise.
I have to write such a recommendation letter now. What should I say?
That was not a rhetorical question.