On the topic of praise in recommendation letters, paradoxes commonly arise. The same person recommends three different candidates for the same scholarship, and each one is redundantly put forth as “absolutely the best student I have ever had.” Every student within a pack of 50 is lauded with the superlatives “outstanding” and “excellent,” yet their GPAs and GRE scores range from perfect to average. And how about the statistical conundrum when 60% of the reference letters from a particular school claim that the recommended students from this year are in the top 5% of students the school has ever graduated? Is this year’s crop really that good? Reacting to this trend of over-the-top praise in letters even in the mid-1960s, one researcher facetiously titled his journal article on the subject, “Mine Eyes Have Seen a Host of Angels” (27).
Unsurprisingly, seasoned selectors can become tone deaf to hyperbole, especially when it’s presented ineffectively—they’ve heard it all before, and unqualified glorification with no supporting evidence or contradictory evidence is simply not credible. We have a system where praise is given in such lavish heaps in recommendation letters that it ironically becomes suspect. As one study put it, search committee members become frustrated with “the contradiction presented by a volume of glorious recommendation letters and a candidate’s weak academic record and a disappointing personal interview” (28). One professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago asserts that, in economics, “it is well known that a certain Nobel laureate claims in every recommendation he has written that the present recommendee is ‘the best student I have ever had’ . . . since around 1953” (29).
One impact of this trend, in cases where selectors actually take the time to follow up and check on the veracity of a claim, is that the evaluation process becomes driven through “increasingly informal channels” (20), where people simply call or e-mail the recommender for the “real information,” resulting in what could be either a more thorough or a more relaxed process, depending on the ethic of all parties involved.
There is also a forceful argument that hyperbolic praise in recommendation letters does harm both to academia and to individuals. One philosopher posits that the practice “obviously injures those who do not benefit from this kind of assistance; and it injures them in a haphazard and inequitable way” (26), with two equally qualified candidates rated differently based on their recommenders’ different levels of flattery. A 2002 report assembled by academicians from different fields finds that an overly laudatory letter “cheats those excellent candidates who deserve great praise and gives less distinguished applicants an unfair and unearned advantage. It may also cause the employer or educational institution to have unrealistic expectations of the candidate” (20). As one instructor at Harvard succinctly puts it: “By rewarding mediocrity we discourage excellence” (30).
The argument that inflated praise is desirable or necessary in letters can also be a powerful, student-centered one. Respondents defending the practice in one study argued that students who are merely satisfactory in college sometimes go on to do very well, so they might be given the benefit of the doubt, and that many students change and improve with experience (8). Knowing that exaggeration is the norm in letters, many writers practice it simply to avoid hurting their students. As one professor of law and philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin noted: “Someone who is candid risks damaging their students, because candor is uncommon” (25). When we write a reference letter, some say, we are responding to the best in the student, and projecting what that student may become in time.
Clearly, what is needed is a form of praise that honors both the student and the letter evaluator equally. A 2002 study by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences suggests a dual ethical responsibility to the candidate and to the evaluators making the decisions. On serving the needs of the evaluators: “A rephrased Golden Rule is the best guide: Write to others the kind of letter of recommendation you would like to receive from them. To follow the rule is responsible professional conduct. Not to follow the rule perpetuates harmful practices in the academy” (20). Though by definition a recommendation letter will always be complimentary and flattering, recommenders serve their students and academia best by writing a letter where praise is measured and exacting, where superlatives are backed up by demonstrative examples, and where statistics about student ranking or quality are used with consistency and great care.
Here are two recommended online sites with details about how to offer praise effectively in letters: