what is the secret code for letters of recommendation?

On this blog I’ve been told to avoid certain things in letters of recommendation. For example, “hard working” has a bizarre secret reading of “untalented.” Someone once told me that “please call me,” a boiler plate sentence, actually means “this person is psychotic but I can only tell you over the phone.” Allegedly, saying that one is good at teaching, has good people skills, or is caring also broadcasts “loser.” At the end of the day, is there anything I can write short of “this person is a genius” that won’t be wildly misread as a secret code for dork? My goal is to write well considered, high information letters for non-geniuses who clearly deserve jobs and admission to graduate school. So, please, tell me the secret code! I’m tenured and I still don’t know it!

Written by fabiorojas

November 30, 2010 at 12:57 am

Posted in academia, fabio

5 Responses

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  1. I once found (and bought) a great book at a used book store called The Lexicon of intentionally ambiguous recommendations (LIAR). A bunch of examples are online here. It is pretty funny.

    You seem to be having the opposite problem than the one the book is trying to help people solve. Maybe you can learn from that book what not to say? Or maybe you’ll just learn that it’s hopeless in the sense that people will read into a rec what they are predisposed to believe — even if the text says the opposite.


    Benjamin Mako Hill

    November 30, 2010 at 6:18 am

  2. I’d be happy to tell you, Fabio. Please call me.



    November 30, 2010 at 8:09 am

  3. This topic has come up in conversation with colleagues several times over the past few weeks given the job market, and the conversations have usually focused on the “code words” in relation to LoRs for racial-ethnic minorities and women and the stickiness of the issue. There’s definitely some messed up things going on with the “code words.” Here’s a piece that Inside Higher Ed had a few weeks ago on the issue for women:

    Saying that someone “has many good ideas” might mean they can’t follow through on any of them or doesn’t know what to do with the ideas, or that someone “sometimes takes on too much” might be interpreted as that person has a hard time finishing what they start. Those are two that come to mind…



    November 30, 2010 at 1:30 pm

  4. Having sat on a search committee recently I can tell you that for me, it doesn’t matter what you write. I no longer read letters. They’re all useless. I just read the work.

    Liked by 1 person


    November 30, 2010 at 4:39 pm

  5. I am sadly inclined to agree with shakha. The problem with the code-words system is you never know if the letter writer is following the rules or not. Some do, some don’t. A naive slip of the tongue, say, calling someone “diligent” instead of “brilliant,” and the code-word system dooms her. It’s ridiculous. I am tired of the lies and deceptions, although most people are well meaning.

    One possibility is just listing the names of references, since the reputation of the references is what matters most anyway. Another possibility is a standard form, by which people could perhaps be held accountable for their rankings and ratings.



    Philip Cohen

    November 30, 2010 at 10:41 pm

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