13

For the first time (I am a relatively junior professor), a student has asked me to write a letter of recommendation for him for graduate school application in the US. I was glad to do so, as he is an excellent student who has performed research with me - we have authored a paper together.

On going through my letter now, it seems a bit ... unnatural. I have used the same adjective on multiple occasions - I only know so many ways to say that a student is 'good' at something. I am also sure that some of my word-choices will be noted as peculiar to the native speaker - most of my English writing experience is in academic contexts. While comparing to random examples that I have found on the internet, my letter seems boring and dull. I am also sure that my letter will have grammar errors of some form or another.

I wanted to know how admissions committees avoid having biases towards letters written by more talented writers, or by native speakers. If you were to put two letters having similar contents in front of me - one written by me and one written by a British or American or any other native English speaking professor, I would say that theirs is definitely superior, and I would feel more positively to their student.

  • 6
    Recommendation letters for grad application should be detailed and let concrete examples speak to the student's ability. It is a little concerning that the biggest issue you have is running out of synonyms for "good". – Drecate Nov 12 '17 at 20:19
  • 8
    For what it’s worth, I wouldn’t be able to tell from your question that you are not a native English speaker. – JeffE Nov 13 '17 at 2:32
  • 2
    If this is one of your first recommendation letters, it might help to practice writing one in your native language, too. This practice might help you to understand what difficulties are arising from the language issue vs. what difficulties are simply inherent to learning to write a good recommendation letter. – Nat Nov 13 '17 at 3:17
  • Ask your colleagues to see strong recommendation letters they wrote / look at recommendation letters for positions you advertise, and see what matters to you. I'm not sure there's a native speaker bias, but I've heard repeatedly that there is an issue with professors not understanding how to most effectively make their case. – AJK Nov 13 '17 at 3:24
  • I think as long as the letter is sincere and has a personal feel to it, then I wouldn't worry about it. I hate letters that looked like a template with appropriate fields changed; i.e., a spam. – Prof. Santa Claus Nov 13 '17 at 6:01
9

I think your question falsely equates being a "talented writer" with things like knowing correct English grammar and spelling and knowing many synonyms for "good", which native English speakers are better at than non-native ones. Those things may indeed be correlated, but they are far from the same, and there are many native English speakers who are crappy writers, and plenty of non-native ones who are "talented writers" who can write a very compelling letter of recommendation, whether grammatically correct or not.

To me, a talented writer is someone who has a good ability to communicate complex ideas effectively in writing. In the context of a letter of recommendation, the grammar and spelling may be poor and the choice of words can be clunky in certain places but the letter can still tell a good story about why the student is worth admitting and be more persuasive than a dry, boring but grammatically flawless letter written by a less talented writer. So, to the extent that students whose letters are written by talented writers enjoy an advantage in admissions decisions, that advantage is not what I would call an unfair advantage or a bias; at least, it's no more unfair than many other merit parameters that applications are judged upon, many of which are unfair to some extent. (In particular, with letters of recommendation there is certainly some unfairness that is intrinsic to the whole system of LORs that academia is built on, since how effective the letters are depends on many random factors, including how talented the writers happen to be).

To summarize, as a general rule I don't think there is any particular "native speaker bias" that needs to be avoided. Admissions committee should read the letters and be impressed by each letter precisely to the extent that it makes a compelling case for admission.*


*The only possible exception to this conclusion is in the case of letters coming from countries where many academics really can't speak or write English very well. Those letters in some cases can be extremely difficult to extract any useful information from, and an applicant with such letters is probably not going to fare too well, perhaps unfairly. However, I don't see what can be done about that -- that is essentially one of the flaws intrinsic to the entire LOR system, as I mentioned above. The system may be flawed, but as far as I know no one has yet found a system that works better.

4

I was in charge of graduate admissions in my department (mathematics) for several years, and my impression is that there can be a problem with letters of recommendation from certain foreign countries, but that the problem is a matter of culture, not language. I can decipher quite badly written sentences, but I need to see relevant information after deciphering. I don't need to know that the student comes from a highly respected family. I need to know that (s)he can learn and do mathematics and is enthusiastic about mathematics, and I want to see evidence for those things, not just assertions. So go ahead and write your letter, with whatever useful information you have, and don't worry too much about grammar, spelling, and literary style. (Although I've written a lot about myself here, I think the most admissions officers feel the same way.)

  • Frankly, if an LOR states that the student "comes from a highly respected family" it seems clear to me that "this was the best and strongest recommendation that the writer was comfortable giving". There are, sadly, still countries where this is a primary decision factor in such admission decisions; and perhaps the identical letter was drafted for several institutions in different countries. – Pieter Geerkens Nov 13 '17 at 3:41
2

I wanted to know how admissions committees avoid having biases towards letters written by more talented writers, or by native speakers.

They can't completely eliminate biases, though usually reviewers intend to focus on objective analysis. They want to select the ideal applicants rather than to critique the writing style of the applicants' recommendation writers.

It's difficult to make broad statements about how your writing style might affect the outcome because it's very subjective. The problem is that biases are fundamentally unavoidable in this context; so, while reviewers will tend to try to compensate for perceived personal biases, compensation is rarely perfect. Sometimes they'll over-correct, and others they'll under-correct. Trying to game that is unlikely to be a particularly productive endeavor.

However, you can attempt to minimize the bias issue by focusing on objectivity and avoiding softer modes of communication. You might want to:

  1. Focus on providing objective information.

    • If a reviewer can pick out objective facts, then their mind is more likely to focus on those facts and not how they were conveyed.

    • Hard facts translate relatively well.

  2. Avoid soft claims.

    • Many writers like to provide opinions about those that they recommend, but opinions are difficult for reviewers to interpret. It's even harder when a language barrier further confuses things.
  3. Avoid references, cliches, idioms, etc. that don't translate to the target culture well.

  4. Consider the target culture's value system.

    • Cultures can have different values on issues like work ethic, creativity, particular evaluation metrics, etc.. It can help to learn about the target culture's value system and speak to it.

    • For example, between the US and China, I tend to perceive Americans as having a relatively high value on creativity with Chinese having a relatively high value on work ethic. If writing a recommendation letter to the US/China, I'd try to ensure that I portion the focus correctly (but not over-correct, either).

  5. Ask someone else who speaks the language well to review your letter and provide feedback.

    • For privacy reasons, you may want to redact the student's name or personal details before providing the letter to a reviewer. However, I'd generally assume that a recommendation letter shouldn't contain too much sensitive information as it's meant to be furnished to third parties anyway.

    • It can help if you know a native member of the target culture. They can help provide feedback on not just the language, but also the cultural aspects.

In the end, there's only so much that you can do, as there's a lot of noise in this particular mode of communication. So I wouldn't recommend fretting about it too much.

  • OP didn't ask for advice on how to write better letters, so why are you offering it rather than answer the question? – Dan Romik Nov 13 '17 at 6:30
  • @DanRomik The question was answered in the first part of the above. I suppose that we may've read the question differently; I read your answer as mostly dodging the question by dismissing the OP's concern rather than addressing it. Difference of interpretations, I'd guess? To me, the question was wanting to ask about the bias, with implicit implication that intent was to work around it. I opted to answer this by discussing correction and how to help avoid bias. I disagree with your suggestion that it isn't an issue. – Nat Nov 13 '17 at 6:43
  • The question was very clear: "How do admission committees in US grad schools avoid a 'Native Speaker Bias' in evaluating recommendation letters?". Not "how can the letter-writer avoid the bias", which is what most of what you wrote addresses. To clarify, my concern is not that you disagree with my own answer (feel free to downvote it if that's the case) but that you offer OP a large amount of unsolicited and uncalled for advice about something they didn't ask about, which I find rude. I'm guessing your intentions are good, but a helpful answer will focus on what was actually asked. – Dan Romik Nov 13 '17 at 7:08
  • @DanRomik Yes, I agree that your perspective is consistent with a strictly literal interpretation of the words in the title. However, the bulk of their question relates their personal circumstance, which suggests that they're seeking insight into that circumstance. I guess you see this as a strictly mechanical question about the nature of admission committees, rather than a letter-writer seeking insight into the nature of admission committees for the purpose of avoiding the bias that they fear will adversely affect them? – Nat Nov 13 '17 at 7:18
  • You are correct, I did not try to second-guess the deeper meaning or intent behind OP's question. Don't get me wrong, there are cases when I too think it's appropriate to answer a slightly different question than the literal question being asked (if you dig into my a.se answer history you'll find some examples of this), so I see where you're coming from. I guess I disagree with how far you've taken this approach in this particular case, but not with the general principle. – Dan Romik Nov 13 '17 at 7:27

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.