Dec 16, 2022Liked by Matt Dinan

Counterpoint: Most requests for letters are for application processes that don't need or can't even use letters to effectively select candidates. For example, applications internal to a university, like study abroad programs or selective majors, where those selecting candidates already have access to extensive institutional information about applicants and can just call their colleagues and ask directly if it's really necessary. Or, applications to internships, where classroom performance is not a great indicator of work performance in a different field. Or, applications to grants and fellowships where a track record of good work as well as the current state of the work can be sufficiently ascertained without a third-party confirmation. (Or, at least, they could just ask the recommender to confirm that the applicant actually has done the work they claim instead of dwelling on their numerous personal virtues for two pages.) The salutary uses of letters that you describe would be strengthened if letters were required *less often* and for *fewer things.* I cannot tell you how annoying it is to have to write 10 or 20 letters a year for students applying to a selective major in my own department, to study with my own colleagues, who could just walk 4 ft over from their office to mine and ask, "What do you think of Student X?"

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Your thoughtful piece reminds of the worst letter of reference ever submitted on my behalf. It was for an education aboard opportunity, but a very special one: the Rhodes Scholarship.

My referee told me - after the fatal letter had already been sent on its way - that he had said that "Oxford would be good for me, and I would be good for Oxford." We were leaving a two-student special studies seminar as he offered this remark. I knew instantly that the people doing the filtering for the Rhodes would not look kindly on that second half of that sentence, and indeed I didn't get one. There was no point in noting to him the harm he had unwittingly committed; the deed was done.

The moral - if one is needed, which it probably isn't - is that it is just as important for the referent to know his referee very, very well as for the referee to know the student well.

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