Given the cautions provided in the previous sections against inflationary rhetoric and hyperbolic praise in letters, some attention to the role of criticism—or perceived criticism—is critical.
One study from the field of psychology—where one must assume that honest assessment is held in high value—is instructive. In a large survey where 98 percent of the respondents were doctoral-level psychologists evaluating students for potential clinical practice, a “nontrivial minority” of respondents said they would not include negative evaluation of students even with knowledge of negative behavior. Specifically, 12.4 percent said they would exclude mention of problems of alcohol or drug abuse, and 43.2 percent said they would not mention anxiety or depression. In the same study, a sample of 116 psychologists who had recently read reference letters said that negative characteristics were infrequently described. Readers of letters in this study assessed that “writers feel more obligated to the student than to the letter recipient” (31).
Certainly, the face-to-face factor plays a strong hand in this dynamic. It’s difficult to look at a student, agree to write a letter, then feel we’ve turned our back on the student by articulating criticism. We also know that letter evaluators actually read with a great deal of sophistication and subtlety when trying to sniff out negative comments (in contrast, praise is read rather simplistically, one could argue). As an example, one study found that negative comments in letters could be grouped into five categories: relative progress (“he’s come a long way”), disadvantaged background (“she’s overcome cultural obstacles”), explicitly negative (“his work is competent but not distinguished”), remediative (“improvement is needed”), and inconspicuously ambiguous (“she is aware of her strengths and weaknesses but won’t take on things she’s unqualified to do”) (32). With such possibilities open to broad reader interpretation, we have to assume that even a minor comment can be interpreted and remembered as definitive and potentially damaging, even in an otherwise positive letter.
Red Flags and Omissions
Plenty of writers—intentionally or otherwise—wave red flags to their readers as they write letters. These red flags might take the form of distancing (with the writer taking pains to show limited knowledge of the student), a critical incident ambiguously offered (a student being called initially aggressive, then “winning over” the writer) (32), or the presentation of so many irrelevancies (either about the student or the recommender) that readers feel there is something to hide. One study published in the journal Academic Emergency Medicine tied the issue of veracity directly to authorship: “Veracity requires that authors avoid sins of omission and commission, understatements as well as overstatements” (12).
One of the loudest ways some writers criticize, or seem to, is through omission. Studies in the medical field in particular show that there is a finely tuned radar for what is not said in a letter. If one has a sense that the writer kept mum about important information, one assumes that something negative is lurking between the lines. “One of the most challenging features of letters of recommendation for medical faculty is the growing tendency not to state the negative, but merely to fail to state the positive” (17). In fact, in one study of letters for surgical residencies, “The commonly used phrase, ‘If I can provide any additional information, please call . . .’ was almost uniformly identified as a strong negative comment” (33). Such red flags and omissions don’t always exclude a candidate, of course, but they can do so in the hands of a hasty reviewer, or they can require readers to take extra time with an application to sort through the writer’s intentions.
An associate professor at Duke University once “pumped up the volume” in a letter sent to a university in Great Britain, calling a student “outstanding.” Soon he received a call from the search committee, asking if the letter had been forged. “It was so hyperbolic in their eyes that they couldn’t believe it,” the professor said (25). He found what many have described anecdotally—that British evaluators lend more credibility to a letter that is not inflated, and even includes at least one criticism. This is especially relevant when one knows that a British evaluator will be part of the process, as with the Marshall and Rhodes scholarships.
One study that compared recommendation letters from four countries found that the letters all seemed to have the same purpose, but that “the ways that writers from different cultures express support vary a great deal” (34). Another study involved only a small statistical sample, but the researchers noted that “even letters from Canada were less hyperbolic than those from the USA” (16).
Reasons and Ways to Criticize
Despite all the concern raised here about the damning power of criticism, we must remember to keep perspective and recognize that the mentor/student relationship often does involve honest critique. I’m reminded of my early days as a fiction writer, where I gained the most help from one challenging mentor (who was, perhaps significantly, British) who wrote at the end of a clever but vacant piece of mine, “You’re very clever, now why don’t you write me some fiction?” I am also reminded of numerous examples where I have given honest criticism about students verbally during interviews or background checks, and in writing amidst an otherwise positive letter, and those students still landed the desired opportunities. My hope and belief is that the criticism lent more credibility to my overall evaluation, and that the evaluators put it into the proper context.
To criticize artfully and kindly when writing letters, consider these practices:
- See if the application materials call for criticism. Many times, a statement will be provided to the referee also inviting your assessment of a candidate’s weaknesses. Take this as a sign that careful critique is desirable, and even cite that statement as you give the critique. Consider this especially when there are cross-cultural factors at work, or when you’re recommending a student in a field with a strong sense of hierarchy.
- Limit your criticism to one paragraph (probably late in the letter) rather than pepper it throughout, and be direct and affirmative as you offer it rather than ambiguous, avoiding comments that seem to be veiled criticisms. Even phrases such as “To the best of my limited knowledge” or “I suspect that” could be read as negative no matter what praise follows. Better to say “his research skills are not yet proven with lab experience” or “her teaching could be improved with a higher level of confidence.”
- Avoid highly negative comments (looked on with as much suspicion as exaggerated praise), hedges, unexplained asides, and irrelevancies.
- Discuss your criticisms with the student, note the response you get, and indicate right in the letter that this discussion and response took place.
- Openly tie your criticism to your sense of ethics as a letter writer (as detailed in the next section). Define yourself as a holistic evaluator.