Do you think letters of recommendation inflate the positives and hide the negatives? — R Voice

Do you think letters of recommendation inflate the positives and hide the negatives?

Jayashree Rajagopalan
Jayashree Rajagopalan Member, Administrator, Moderator Posts: 88 admin

I read something that made me go back and think about the letters of recommendation I have received from my professors and those I have written for others. How much of what is in a letter of recommendation is true? Are we afraid of being responsible for negative outcomes for the people we recommend - and does this make us write only good things? Or, do we not know how to be constructive?

A research team at Cornell University and Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory analyzed letters of recommendation for academic purposes and shared some fascinating insights. They suggest that the positives are often inflated in academic letters of recommendation and one way of sifting through the regular adjectives used is to look for superlatives that are used to describe candidates. 

I find this very interesting and would like to hear your views on this post as well as about academic letters of recommendation in general. - @chris leonard @Asli Telli @Raj sundaram @Mohamed Samunn @Isurika Sevwandi @Parul Nigam @Karen A. Thomas @Lidia Lins @Erin Owens @Sarah V. White @Lisa Jansen @Hollie McDonnell @Neha Lasure

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Comments

  • Shruti Turner
    Shruti Turner Member Posts: 64 ✭✭✭
    edited May 25

    I have really mixed feelings about letters of recommendation, both in and out of academia. I see why a new company/employer would want to see them, to get a feel of who you are as a person before deciding whether to work with you, assuming that they are actually knowest. BUT, it can be such a biased process and can be disadvantageous when it is stipulated who should be your referee(s). This is where I'm going on a little bit of a tangent from your original post, @Jayashree Rajagopalan.

    I feel there are many unwritten rules about reference letters...if you don't pick your current manager/employer then it's not recent enough or it implies there is a poor relationship there. There's no room for an explanation before a reference letter is read and I feel it can put the candidate at a disadvantage.

    I also read (and now I couldn't tell you where!) - I'm going to guess in the book Invisible Women by Carline Criado Perez - that there is natural unconscious bias in recommendation letters. Women are more likely to be described by "softer" words, praising effort and empathy etc. Whereas men are more likely to be described with more concrete, skills-based phrases i.e. the things that employers are looking for and more likely to match the words on the job application.

  • Jayashree Rajagopalan
    Jayashree Rajagopalan Member, Administrator, Moderator Posts: 88 admin

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts @Shruti Turner. I liked the tangent! I just went oooooo when I went over what you said about unwritten rules for reference letters. Perhaps these rules lead to a bias somewhere along the way for all parties involved. And the reference to unconscious gender biases sounds like its worth reading up about.

    What stood out for me as I read this post was that a letter of recommendation is so much more than just a few words. For an academic (or professional) candidate, it is like a validation of some of their specific abilities. For the employer/institution, it is perhaps an indication of the kind of impact the candidate has had in that relationship. For the person who is writing a recommendation - it could vary between just another job that needs doing and a sort of personal advocacy for someone that you really want to help and wish well for.

  • Omololu FAGBADEBO
    Omololu FAGBADEBO Member Posts: 13 ✭✭

    @Jayashree Rajagopalan, everyone has innate character and potential that the academic qualifications and publications cannot reveal. Organizations need to know these to enable them to make informed decisions. And it can only be provided by people who have worked with us and observed such character traits. Yes, they might be exaggerated but, not falsehood. And what we consider as negative character traits might even be valuable endowments to others.

    One thing at a time

  • Shruti Turner
    Shruti Turner Member Posts: 64 ✭✭✭

    Thanks, @Jayashree Rajagopalan - I find there's so much to consider with reference letters. I didn't even address what was in the article you posted, I'm sorry!

    I think it's interesting what you pick up about the difference of importance and meaning to the writer/receiver/subject of the reference letter. It's not something I considered before. I haven't ever seen an academic reference that has been written about me, but I think I would take to heart what is said. I am a bit of an overthinker (whether an email or whatever), but an innocent statement from someone writing a statement because they're busy might make me worry about my abilities, in the similar way something good would feel special and like validation of my work/skills.

  • Shruti Turner
    Shruti Turner Member Posts: 64 ✭✭✭

    @Omololu FAGBADEBO - I totally agree that character and potential can not be determined solely through publication/qualification record. Do you not worry that personal relationships (good or bad) might influence the reference content? I don't know how I feel about this, personally, I have such mixed views but I'm keen to hear others' views.

  • Raj sundaram
    Raj sundaram Member Posts: 170 ✭✭✭✭

    Made me think..@Jayashree Rajagopalan

    Do you think letters of recommendation inflate the positives and hide the negatives?

    My answer from experience, what I have seen and heard in other cases -

    Yes - mostly

    No - in a good way (recommendation letters can be balanced), sometimes

    and no - in a bad way (recommendation letters set to destroy can indeed destroy a person's career and opportunities)

    Mostly, recommendation letters are not balanced and inflate positives. One reason is AFAIK, many times - people who seek recommendation letters write a first draft themselves, submit it to the bosses who (if time permits) make tweaks. Even if recommendation letters are written by the person recommending (which is a bit rare), people kind of use a previous template. I would say a lot of supervisors/senior academics are pressed for time (although not always) - to give a recommendation letter thought and effort.

    That said - recommendations can be balanced. Once or twice I have had very balanced recommendation letters that actually pointed out my flaws as well as my strengths. (It was my strength in excess that became a flaw). REcruiters do take a note of this and it can be helpful in new workplaces/in recruitment process - during interviews. I usually appreciate honest recommendations.

    I have also heard of recommendation letters expressly written to destroy a person's opportunity. Also, happened to a person I know.

    My take is not all recommendation letters are to be taken at face value.

  • Hong Ching Goh
    Hong Ching Goh Member Posts: 10 ✭✭

    Speaking from my experience,

    Writing recommendation letter- I personally will write letter of recommendation which reflects the candidate, which takes more time than the 'template' content. I refused to write to some because I don't know them well enough and I do not know if that would serve the purpose.

    Receiving recommendation letter- When receiving letter of recommendation from candidates who applied for job, I normally take extra step to contact the referees shown in the CV to know the person better, if I have inquiry. That helps actually.

  • Jayashree Rajagopalan
    Jayashree Rajagopalan Member, Administrator, Moderator Posts: 88 admin

    Thanks for sharing this @Hong Ching Goh - I appreciate that you've mentioned a couple of very important points here, both related to effort. While writing letters of recommendation it is very important to take the time to think about whether you need to go beyond the template. And while evaluating a candidate, it is equally important to pay attention to the referees mentioned and put in that extra effort to actually reach out to them.

  • Asli Telli
    Asli Telli Member Posts: 28 ✭✭✭

    For one thing, I hate it when the students put in my name as reference during their applications and the automated system sends in a message mentioning that I should provide both a reference letter and a long form in a day or two! This takes only a kind asking / request say, a few weeks ahead of time. I feel doubly responsible when it is for students since I know this might have significant impact in their education and possibly further career...and yes, you are right @Hong Ching Goh , you need to know the person well, both in person and professional means so that the reference is objective and has grounding. Thanks for asking @Jayashree Rajagopalan , I do think reference writing is a part of the academic norms as well as the meritocracy, so the inflated adjectives are not surprising at all. It could also be that the person providing th reference does not know/have anything better to write;)

  • Raj sundaram
    Raj sundaram Member Posts: 170 ✭✭✭✭
    edited June 11

    @Asli Telli : Yes, students just putting recommender's name without asking. That is unprofessional. :/

    @Hong Ching Goh : Taking the extra step to contact referees and ask more about the candidate is an excellent suggestion. Glad you take this step.

    However, have seen this happen mostly when students move to groups of colloborators and PIs kind of know each other, etc. Not sure if people reach out to referees they dont know.

  • Hong Ching Goh
    Hong Ching Goh Member Posts: 10 ✭✭

    @Rajendra Korlapu-Bungaree I have done this to referees that I don't know 😂 I guess, whether we want to take a step forward. The first step is always more challenging, but once started, I realized that the genuine academics support each other!

  • Raj sundaram
    Raj sundaram Member Posts: 170 ✭✭✭✭

    Good to know that there seem to be "model" academics in existence. Only hoping that these species are not unicorns. My observation tends toward the latter. 🙂

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