I recently applied for an academic job that did not request letters of recommendation at the time of application, but only a list of potential references. I just now received an email from the search committee chair that I had made it to the "short list" and to please contact my references to arrange for my letters to be sent. I thought that a "short list" was the list of people who were going to be flown out for an in-person interview, but it seems that the "short list" in this context just means "the list of candidates whose letters of reference we'd like to see". Is there an agreed-upon definition of "short list" that I'm missing?

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    short list: a list of selected candidates from which a final choice is made (New Oxford American Dictionary)
    – F'x
    Dec 4, 2013 at 21:23
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    I think the information you take from being on a short list is that they threw out some other people's applications and didn't throw out yours, nothing more, nothing less. Felicitations! Dec 4, 2013 at 22:07

4 Answers 4


Nope, there's no widely agreed upon definition of "short list". Sometimes a committee draws up an official short list, while sometimes people informally talk about a short list based on who is being seriously considered even if there's no official list. Sometimes the short list consists of the people being interviewed, sometimes it's the people for whom letters are being requested, and sometimes it's in between. Things can get more complicated when there are several forms of interviews (e.g., interviews at an annual meeting vs. fly-ins). Sometimes a reference to the short list is a meaningless pleasantry meant to soften the blow of rejection when a committee member knows an applicant personally. Ultimately, the only thing you can say for sure is that it's better to be on the short list than off it. Beyond that, you have to guess from context or ask for clarification.

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    "Ultimately, the only thing you can say for sure is that it's better to be on the short list than off it" - I love your answer, it sounds like something from Seinfeld.
    – Bitwise
    Dec 4, 2013 at 21:45
  • @Bitwise I read that comment in Jerry's voice.
    – Steve P.
    Dec 6, 2013 at 15:24

"The short list" doesn't have an agreed upon meaning besides "The list that's shorter than the long list" in my experience.

In some places, it does mean the people they're intending to interview, but not necessarily. In your case, since they've been kind enough not to waste the time of (potentially) hundreds of people writing letters for candidates that never stood a chance, it might actually mean what you thought it meant, just that there's an additional step between "We like him" and "Fly him out". Namely, get letters of recommendation before they spend airfare, department time and resources etc. for someone who has some hidden flaw that will come out in the letters. So the intent might be there, but with an added bit of due diligence.

It might also be that they have a "short list" and then a "shorter list", which would be the scenario you're assuming.


Your interpretation is similar to how things work at my institution.

  1. We scrutinize the applications and filter them
  2. For the filtered set, we ask for letters of recommendation (this is the stage you appear to be at). We do this because it takes work to track down the letter writers, and we don't want to invest the effort unless the candidate has some chance of making it to the next phase.
  3. We go through the letters very carefully, solicit extral informal feedback if necessary, and then develop a (partial) interview list.

We don't necessarily tell candidates that they've reached phase 2, and in some universities there's no step 1, so it's not always clear what "asking for letters" really means. In your case, since the department explicitly mentioned a short list, you've likely passed a plausibility filter (which is good!), but you can't draw any further inference from it.

From the department's point of view, this is also a way to make you excited and motivated to push your letter writers into action (so it saves them effort :))


Being on a short list does not necessarily mean that they are going to interview you. It costs them quite a bit to fly you out and put you up in a hotel for a few days. But it is very possible that candidates ahead of you will ultimately turn the job down. And at some point they may well consider you, and fly you out.

Quite likely, also, they haven't decided who they are going to call for an interview, and they want to read the letters to get an idea of who they want to interview.

Finally, these decisions may be based upon things beyond your control, or your talents. For example, they might be looking for candidates with a very specific skill set, and you might not be a good fit. Or there might be some internal politics in the department - perhaps one person really wants to hire you, and another really wants to hire someone else. It's all out of your control.

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