19 December 2018

Writing bad recommendation letters

This finding about recommendations letters shook me:

The commonly used phrase, “If I can provide any additional information, please call…,” was almost uniformly identified as a strong negative comment(.)
Oh crap oh crap oh crap.

How many recommendation letters over the years had I written that had some variation of, “Please contact me”? I was trying to be helpful by letting committees know I was available to them. I though this was positive. And it looks like I inadvertently hurt my students’ chances instead.

I am not the only one who probably hurt peoples’ chances by writing letters that were perceived as weak.

This got me wondering: Why didn’t I know this?

And I realized that nobody ever gave me any guidance for how to write recommendations.

As a student, I am the person requesting recommendations. My training for writing was about how to write papers and grants.

As a post-doc, nobody asked me for recommendations. That was when someone should have warned me.

Become a faculty member, and suddenly you are regularly asked by students to supply recommendation letters. Sometimes there are from students who are one of dozens or hundred in an introductory class who you couldn’t pick out of a line-up. How do you do justice to these students who need recommendations and have few options?

In all my time on university campuses, I never heard any serious discussions about how to compose recommendation letters. Sure, I read recommendations from other faculty members, and saw obvious no-no’s. Some faculty wrote form letters, just swapping out names of students. (That works until someone sees the form letter twice. Then every student after that is harmed.)

Do other faculty ever get guidance from mentors about how to write recommendation letters? I think I’ll be putting that in a Twitter poll. Should we?

I had never seen any “how to” articles in journals about composing recommendations, either. I found this article with a quick search in Google Scholar, but it seems to be a rare specimen of the genre.

And the moral of the story is:

If you are someone who mentors postdocs, talk to them about what you know about recommendation letters. Don’t let them learn it on the fly by trial and error.

Additional, 20 December 2018: Twitter poll results! Small sample, but telling. Nobody was mentored in writing recommendations.


Greenburg AG, Doyle J, McClure DK. 1994. Letters of recommendation for surgical residencies: What they say and what they mean. Journal of Surgical Research 56(2): 192-198. https://doi.org/10.1006/jsre.1994.1031

Moore S, Smith JM. 1986. Writing recommendation letters for students. The Clearing House: A Journal of Educational Strategies, Issues and Ideas 59(8): 375-376. https://doi.org/10.1080/00098655.1986.9955695

External links

How to fix recommendation bias and evaluation inflation
Do professors ever write negative recommendation letters?
Tenure denial, seven years later 

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