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I have written a few reference letters to students for US universities in this recruiting season, and just got an email from a colleague in a university a student of mine was applying to, asking why am I not as enthusiastic about that student.

Here's the thing - I really was enthusiastic about them. I wrote what I thought was a very supportive letter, but I guess that my academic upbringing encouraged less overt use of superlatives. For context, my PhD advisor is an East European mathematician, so she's perhaps not the best role model in terms of showing enthusiasm (as an example, she referred to my first paper submission as a "50% chance of rejection"; that paper got a best paper award).

I realize that my reference letters are not as enthusiastic as my North American counterparts', and that's a cause for concern - this is a potential disservice to my perfectly good candidates.

My question is - what language would you use to describe outstanding students?

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    There are many examples on the internet. Importantly, this "skeptical" evaluation style in use in a number of (esp. East) European countries pretends to be distant and objective and, when used in communication with the student, to "encourage additional effort". I never was a fan of putting down students to make them work harder or write a muted reference to appear more objective. If you really are enthusiastic, write it, do not hold back. Of course, give evidence why you think that way and do not exaggerate. Dec 22 '20 at 16:21
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    I think you're correct that "normal superlative tone" varies a lot by country - what Americans consider quite normal tends to sound really exaggerated to Dutch ears for example.
    – ObscureOwl
    Dec 23 '20 at 19:19
  • If you boil that down, isn't the basic Question simply "what language would you use to describe outstanding students?" Then how could anyone really Answer without first knowing which students and in what circumstances? In the single case you detailed, of a colleague asking why you weren't as enthusiastic about that student, why not respond that you prefer to be reserved than over-enthusiastic but since your colleague has asked, that student has this, that and the other qualities… and this time, be truly enthusiastic? Dec 24 '20 at 0:58
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It's once again LOR season and I've been writing a bunch as well. I don't think it's so much a question of finding the right language as it is how you present your case for recommending the student.

I'm not sure if you'll find this directly responsive, but here's how I think about it. I expect the reader has no idea who I am or what my standards are. I need to give as much objective information about my relationship with the student and their performance as I can so the reader can understand the basis for my judgement and can decide for themselves whether they agree. That starts with the classes they took with me or the semesters I hired them as staff and their duties.

Sometimes, I don't know much about the student except their grade in my class (which the reader will already know from a transcript.) An example would be a sophomore who was in my section in one of our 1000+ student intro computer science courses. So, I'll describe the class, the assignments, how grading was done, emphasize the difficulty, give the student's final rank and add any additional information information I have, e.g., they were a top participant in our Piazza forum, or at least, that I've discussed the student's plans with them and support them.

Once I give that objective information, then I attest to their knowledge, skills and abilities, suitability for teaching and research, etc., inserting a few superlatives, and give my highest recommendation (assuming I can; if I can't, I try to politely decline) and invite them to contact me if they have questions.

For me, an LOR is usually about one to one and a half pages, including room at the top for the letterhead and inside address, and signature at the bottom. (Yes, I think it's worth using a letterhead template; it communicates that you cared enough to put some time into it. I also think it's worth a signature, but that's just another .jpg in my template.)

By now, it's pretty formulaic for me and I'm usually able to bang out a new LOR in an hour or two.

The really hard LORs to write are the ones where I've known the student for several years, they've been in one of my smaller classes, I then hired them to help me teach it, they've been in my office a ton, they're smart as all get-out, and now I really care about them. Had one of those a couple weeks ago; I struggled for days how to write the letter he deserved.

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    +1! for "I expect the reader has no idea who I am or what my standards are. I need to give as much objective information about my relationship [...] so the reader can understand the basis for my judgement and can decide for themselves whether they agree." Dec 22 '20 at 20:13
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    I personally dislike the phrase "my highest (or strongest etc) recommendation" and don't think I've ever used it, even though I know it's very common. I suppose you could mean that is the highest recommendation you will give anyone for that specific position that year, but to me this phrase always sounds like there is no one past or future you could give a higher recommendation. (I'm not trying to critique you or this answer, just a phrase that always annoys me because so many people are cavalier about it.)
    – Kimball
    Dec 23 '20 at 1:34
  • @Kimball Pick whatever phrase you like. Dec 23 '20 at 1:39
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Sometimes overly enthusiastic words seem phony and they can be easy to dismiss. But what the readers want to know is your assessment of the likely success of the student in the next program and thereafter.

For a truly outstanding student I say something like "I would accept this student as an advisee of mine on any compatible project with no reservation whatever."

But words like creative, hard-working, persistent, inquisitive, careful, future-focused, well-prepared, and the like are useful things to say if they can be said honestly.

One way to think of a reference letter is to focus it on the future as much as you can, rather than the past. The same should be true of the student's SoP (statement of purpose). Assure the reader that they won't be disappointed if they accept this person.

And in the current individual case, you might write back to explain yourself better, including your own background.

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