Chapter 1 thoroughly discusses the issue of how to give praise effectively. Both in the literature and anecdotally, letter readers note that the superlatives used in a recommendation letter can be the most revealing characteristic of all. In particular, adjectives that express the level of quality in a student’s work or character—especially when they are presented with ethos and amidst convincing evidence—demonstrate both your belief in the student and your acumen as an evaluator.
Adapting from a study of 625 reference letters (1), what follows is a short list of some of the superlatives used in those letters, categorized here by function:
What’s especially interesting about this list, which can be used to generate ideas for superlatives when writing letters, is how the adjectives most definitive of work ethic and character (“pace-setting,” “tenacious,” “on-the-ball”) immediately suggest that the evaluator has thoughtfully assessed the student’s talents in context rather than just plugged in a term arbitrarily. One working in a lab where radioactive waste is handled, for example, needs to be “diligent,” “orderly,” and even “fastidious”; one seeking to teach poetry writing needs to be “creative,” “understanding,” and “enthusiastic.”
In this example—a paragraph taken from a sample letter in Chapter 6—we see how superlatives can be used both to leverage the student and to define a field in which the student works:
As Janet dared in English, she has come to dare in her other choices: in her application to and involvement in the Bucknell NSF-REU in physics; in her summer work with the Biomaterials and Bionanotechnology Summer Institute funded by NSF and NIH. A technical and rapidly expanding field such as neurophysics requires students to think out of the box. If ever a student were capable of extraordinary achievement in such a field, Janet is it—precisely because she thinks out of so many boxes simultaneously. Janet’s abilities extend from sophisticated mathematics to the clear articulation of computational problems and solutions; from high-level physics to the demonstration of concepts; from the smallest detail (or molecule, as she might say) to the biggest picture (or, the cosmos).
Of course, one needs to practice restraint when praising a student’s abilities as well. As one group of authors from a recent study on recommendation letters noted: “A member of my department once expressed to me his frustration that the prevalence of superlatives made it impossible to make anyone believe how good a certain student of ours actually was” (2). By sheer volume or the whiff of exaggeration, superlatives applied to a student’s accomplishments, especially without contextual evidence to back them up, might simply cloud judgment. Encomium heaped too generously only invites doubt.
These sites offer tools for understanding and using superlatives in writing recommendation letters: