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I am currently writing a reference letter for a colleague applying for a US green card. Given that I don't know much about the process and expectations of the immigration bureaucrats who will handle the application, I asked around for examples of such letter. Obviously, they are all glowing, and I started writing in the same style.

Now, don’t get me wrong: she is truly a great researcher, I wish her the best of success with her application and hope to help as much as I can (at least, not to let her down). But… at the same time, as I finished writing my letter, I wondered: is it possible that I went over the top with praise? Is it even possible, in such a case? And if so, how can I tell? I mean, I did not write anything factual wrong, but if read very literal (and outside context), it might sound more like the eulogy of a Nobel prize winner than the recommendation of a mid-carreer researcher (even a very good one).

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I'm reminded of Steven Krantz's discussion of recommendations in his book A Primer of Mathematical Writing, where he lists some sample phrases in increasing order of praise, finishing with "X is the greatest mathematician since Gauss". –  Nate Eldredge Jan 20 '13 at 3:38
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What, no "Gauss was very very smart. Princeps mathematicorum is the term. So when I tell you that X makes Gauss look like an idiot child, I want you to understand my full meaning."? –  JeffE Jan 20 '13 at 19:54

4 Answers 4

up vote 20 down vote accepted

Letters written for a green card application are very differently structured to letters written for other purposes. As was explained to me when I went through the process, the structure of a green card letter is usually

  • I am awesome
  • here are all the ways in which I am awesome
  • because I am so awesome, you should trust me when I say that this person should get a green card
  • and oh yeah, they're pretty awesome, which I can tell because I'm awesome.

I'm only slightly exaggerating here. The point is that GC letters are not read by academics - they are read by lawyers who don't evaluate technical skills so much as achievements and strength of recommender. So there's no way to go over the top really.

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Yeah, your general four-part plan is pretty much what I followed ;-) It's a weird experience, hence my question. Thanks for this very specific reply, I stand reässured! –  F'x Jan 19 '13 at 21:39
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You know, this isn't all that different from an academic recommendation letter. (Ha ha only serious.) –  JeffE Jan 20 '13 at 19:56

There a few signs that you might have gone over the top:

  • Have you used many absolute superlatives ("the best" rather than "one of the best," "the most dedicated" instead of "extremely dedicated", and so on)?
  • Is your letter too long or too detailed, given the length of time you have known the person (four pages is probably too long for someone who worked for you on a summer project, unless you've known that person independently in other contexts before then).

and most importantly

  • Would such a letter, if you were the one receiving it rather than writing it, cause you to have an unfavorable or skeptical reaction about the candidate?

In other words, if it makes you think "nobody's that good," you've probably gone over the top.

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The roles are not symmetric, and thus I have no idea what goes through the mind of a US immigration officer when he reads such a letter. Other signs are good checks, though (and as I read them, I recognized that I would never write with absolute superlatives in reference letters, so on that one at least I am safe). –  F'x Jan 19 '13 at 17:09
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Well, that may be true, but in general, if you can't believe what you've written, it's unlikely somebody else will! –  aeismail Jan 19 '13 at 20:05

Having been the recipient of a few recommendation letters when applying for a US Green Card, I can assure you it is impossible to give too much praise. The letters I received from my colleagues were humbling and, to put it mildly, embarrassing!!

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The purpose of a recommendation letter for green card application is to convince the application reviewer that the applicant is a person the US wants for its national interest.

As long as you don't lie, I think you're fine.

For example, you can say you think she is the best scientist you ever met. This would be your own subjective opinion. You think that way. Others may not think the same. No one can say you lie because it's just your opinion.

Basically, you can say anything you want. But, be careful. You don't want to step on your own toes. You better have evidences to support whatever you say in your recommendation letter. For instance, she'd better be good enough to be called the best scienist you ever met. The evidences would be something like, she received some outstanding awards from well known organizations, etc.

Remember, you'll have to sign on the bottom of the recommendation letter and send it to the US government. Would you be careful when you submit a document to any government?

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