Overselling the candidate on a letter of recommendation

brooksphd is pondering a letter of recommendation

"X just applied and she listed you as a reference!"
But this feels nice! And scary - is there an added layer of responsibility on both sides of this equation now?

There is, and I observed that one should avoid overselling the candidate in making one's comments. To this brooksphd replied:

that's the issue I'm thinking about. Did I, could I, would I maybe oversell (or undersell) someone? Really, would it be bad to now 'oversell' someone? to really emphasize their fit because you can write a better letter. Is it common practice? Same as under selling someone is an easy, "I certainly consider this candidate above average. Hir fit in your lab is good. S/he reads the literature and makes solutions at the correct concentration accurately..."

Now, I recognize it is common practice to oversell and I seek ways to include a lot of confidence in the letters that I write for people. I put the best possible spin on my estimation of their talents and I may occasionally neglect to mention the odd deficit that I have observed.

But you have to keep it within reason.

I've had at least one experience in the past where I took someone into the lab at least partially on the strength of a recommendation letter...and this turned out to be an unreasonable oversell.

I will remind you that this is in full recognition of the type of excessive enthusiasm that we mentor types often think we need to include in the letter. Also with what I happen to think is a reasonable sympathy for the exigencies of life that can cause people's work to be somewhat below the stellar, even for extended intervals of time.

This particular trainee sucked.

And it wasn't just me, either. We're talking all around failure to perform in the context of multiple obligations of this particular training dealio. It happens, and this is not the main point.

The main point is the original letter writer who testified to the skills of this particular individual in a scientific/laboratory context. There is no way in hell the letter could have been an accurate reflection. No way this person performed well in the past...or even performed at average. No way.

So my opinion of this letter writer is now and forever somewhere less than dirt. For certain sure I would never trust any other recommendations that this person might make.

I learned a lesson, my friends, a very powerful one.

You need to keep your recommendations within bounds. Do NOT ever give a glowing recommendation for someone if you know that they are going to turn out to perform significantly below average.

Because if you get burned, that mud comes back on you.

10 responses so far

  • Anon2 says:

    I, too, once hired someone whose recommendations turned out to be a HUGE oversell. It was extremely painful and has colored the way I both write and read letters of recommendation (learning experience I suppose). On the other hand, I recently provided a letter of recommendation for a good student looking for a postdoc and a few months after this student joined the postdoc lab, the postdoc advisor called me to let me know that the qualities I had mentioned in my letter were spot-on and that he was really pleased with the postdoc. I thought that was great feedback! (Not that I'm suggesting we call the folks who oversell to tell them what we think of THEIR trainees...)

  • Kelly says:

    One of my former coworkers was asked to write a letter for a trainee who was, shall we say, less than stellar. He used this statement, "You'd be lucky to get XXX to work for you." How great is that statement?!

  • Jean says:

    I know for a fact that there are people who to get rid off uncommitted personnel (e.g., technicians, post-docs) will write excellent letters of recommendation.

  • AcademicLurker says:


    That's a truism I've heard ever since I was a graduate student:

    Really glowing letters get written for

    1) Genuinely excellent trainees


    2) People so awful their PI is desperate to get rid of them

  • anon says:

    I don't know whether this is the right thing to do - sometimes I am forthcoming about a person's weakness in their letter of recommendation. Of course, their strengths are highlighted, but I thought that being honest about what could be developed in a trainee would be worth mentioning and give the rest of the letter more credit. In one case where I needed to do this, I got a phone call from the potential supervisor and after talking it over with me, the candidate was hired.

    Generally, I would not count on a single letter of recommendation when hiring someone.

  • WhizBANG says:

    I have found letters of recommendation, be they for students or potential employees, relatively useless. Anyone with any sense can find a few people who will say good things about them.
    What do I trust? Grades, test scores, and my gut after a face-to-face. And phone conversations with a previous (but not current) employer. Current employers may gloss over BS to get rid of someone; an earlier employer may tell you unvarnished truth.

  • GMP says:

    The best letters are specific enough for you to feel like the writer does know the candidate well and is sharing their experience candidly. Generic glowing letters "s/he walks on water and can do no wrong" are of course useless. I personally like to see specific strengths highlighted, with examples. Comparisons to other people we all know are also very useful. If there are weaknesses, usually people simply avoid mentioning them, so you kind of infer from what's not there.

    If I am seriously considering interviewing a candidate, I will always follow up with a letter writer via email or phone; that's where I get the unabridged, honest account of the candidate's strengths and weaknesses.

    Also, it's important to pay attention to cultural differences -- I find that letters from Europe are considerably less sparkly than those from the US. So a relatively reserved -- perhaps matter-0f-fact is a better term -- letter from a European university is not an uncommon occurrence even for phenomenal candidates.

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    As a general principle, I try to say something negative in a letter of recommendation, and then explain how it is really a virtue, or how it can be coped with. I think an honest negative comment gives the letter a feel of authenticity. For example, I had a student who had lots of good ideas, and was a hard worker. But he would flit from idea to idea and never get anything done. I said that he had to be given firm deadlines, and then would do a stellar job. He was hired, given firm deadlines and the rest is history.

    No one is perfect, and the letter should not only help the person get the position, but inform the organization so that the person is managed to be successful.

  • Karen says:

    You academic types are lucky, in that you have the time to consider what you're going to say in a letter. In industry it's a phone call. If the candidate has given you advance notice that s/he's interviewing (WHICH S/HE SHOULD!!!), you can think about what you want to say in advance, but it can be hard to anticipate all the reference checker's questions.

    Having whined, I'll say that I always try to be polite and truthful when called for a reference. For a (real) example, "He's a great software engineer, asks all the right questions and turns out impressive software, but he's personally reserved" is reference-speak for "He's a human clam." A smart reference-checker will hear my response and assume that this guy is not going to be a really great team player. Maybe that's important in the job, maybe it isn't. But I refuse to be other than honest.

    (But, oh, the software that guy could turn out, even overnight! Correct, elegant, utterly maintainable...engineering artistry at its best. But he was hopeless as part of a team effort; he was just too shy to tell others when they were wrong.)

  • Spiny Norman says:

    Then there's the art of writing references for people you want to get rid of, *to* people you don't like...

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