Secret Code in Recommendation Letters?!

<p>In another thread, a parent asked about schools for a quirky daughter. Someone contributed this thought:</p>

<p><<<one of="" my="" d's="" middle="" school="" teachers="" described="" her="" as="" 'quirky'="" in="" a="" letter="" to="" boarding="" and="" they="" rejected="" because="" can="" have="" some="" bad="" connotations="" the="" scholastic="" world.="" it="" be="" code="" for="" 'disruptive',="" 'troubled'="" or="" even="" undiagnosed="" ld.="">>> </one></p>

<p>This stopped me in my tracks. I'm a teacher and I can't imagine using/reading "quirky" as a euphemism for behavioral, emotional, or (undiagnosed) learning problems. </p>

<p>I've read other posts on CC that claim various descriptors are "code." As a recommendation letter writer, it disturbs me that I may be inadvertently creating negative impressions about students.</p>

<p>Is is true that an applicant with an otherwise attractive application might be disqualified
because one adjective, which is seen as complimentary by the writer, is viewed as suspicious subtext (read: pejorative) by the reader?</p>

<p>Do any of you have experience - as either the letters-reader or the jilted applicant - of this kind of misunderstanding happening? If so, please share the questionable language.</p>

<p>In other words, gimme' the code! (Remember, I'm looking for evidence, not speculation.)</p>

<p>~Astonished (as usual...)</p>

<p>I am not sure there is a "secret code" that is anything more than common sense. </p>

<p>Fwiw, a well-written letter should not rely on florid terms and leave ambiguity. It should be truthful ... and if quirky is what comes to mind to define a student, you should use. This said, the letter should make clear why this student is viewed as quirky. In a way, this goes back to the "show but do not tell" principle. </p>

<p>Take a look at MIT's take on writing evaluations: </p>

<p>MIT</a> Admissions | Info For Schools & Counselors: Writing Evaluations</p>

<p>Remember as well that the poster of that statement (attributing negative connotations to "quirky") only presumes both the connotation and the fact that the connotation lead to the rejection. </p>

<p>Boarding schools, just like colleges, have a "culture" and a "fit." There are some that are probably very straight-laced and would have difficulty with a quirky student, even with no "negative connotation." There are some that would probably welcome her with open arms and value and nurture the quirkiness.</p>

<p>Besides, would you really want your quirky students to go to schools that would consider the word to be some sort of hidden "code"? As my d said to me when she refused to take a course, "If some school won't take me because I don't have AP calculus, then that's not a school I want to go to anyway."</p>

<p>Xiggi is right.</p>

<p>I have read many recommendation letters for job applicants and I can't say "quirky" would be a word I would want to hear. I would expect adjectives to refer to specific talents, characteristics, or achievements, not give vague impressions. Any vague impression is a bad thing because one gets the feeling that the writer wanted to leave something unsaid.</p>

<p>"Quirky" reminds me of "interesting", good when applied to a style or idea, but too vague to be useful when describing a person. And that leaves you with the question, "Why did the recommender use the word 'quirky' when any other specific positive adjective could have been used? Was 'quirky' really one of the stand-out qualities of this young person?" And how could that possibly be a good thing? If by "quirky" you mean, state accordion champion, an amazing doodler, and a razor-sharp wit, then say so. Don't make us wonder if by 'quirky' you mean, "I recall she had a lot of piercings" which, while fine, would be worrisome if that is what you remember most about the child. "Highly original thinker" or "iconoclast in the best sense of the word" or "unusually creative, especially her way of solving math problems such as I have not seen in my career" would be way, way, way, better than "quirky".</p>

<p>If I did not get specific achievements listed, specific demonstrated traits like "willingness to stay late" or "always able to plan ahead for field trips" or "works quietly but always produces original thought, for example" I would doubt the credibility of the letter.</p>

<p>I think words can have different implications in different contexts. For instance, it's common to see ads seeking "aggressive" salespeople, though that's not a term of praise in my book. I write recommendations for people applying for very competitive academic jobs at research universities, and in that setting, it is the kiss of death to be described as "diligent" or "hardworking," even though the people who get those jobs are actually diligent in spades (workaholic, actually). But if you call them "diligent," it sounds as if you are saying they are "hardworking, but not very intelligent or creative." Many of the terms used to praise stereotypically female traits--"warm," "charming," "caring," etc.--can also backfire. But for somebody applying for, say, a job at a preschool or a summer camp, they would presumably be words of strong commendation.</p>

<p>
[quote]
In other words, gimme' the code!

[/quote]

I would but then I'd have to delete you.</p>

<p>Be careful, or the collegeboard will come up with an official secret decoder ring to ship with each recommendation.</p>

<p>Iconoclast. Adore that word.</p>

<p>Yes - Hard Working, Persistent, and Aggressive have all appeared on CC as examples of verboten descriptors. </p>

<p>However, look! All those words appear in the sample letters on Xiggi's link to letters that MIT likes to receive. </p>

<p>(And yes, of course, any descriptor should be accompanied by examples.)</p>

<p>I've been feeling increasingly skittish about letter-writing since I've started lurking here. My allusion to a "secret code" is, of course, tongue in cheek, but I'm enjoying the answers and examples. Keep 'em coming...</p>

<p>...or just send me that decoder ring. (Runs off to tear Proof of Purchase coupons off cereal boxes...)</p>

<p>I heard on one of these threads a few years ago to be careful with the term quirky - that it equaled Asperger's. After that I was very careful in how I described my daughter.</p>

<p>I certainly wouldn't use the word quirky to describe a student without giving an example of what makes me want to use that word in a recommendation.</p>

<p>Bonnie: Yes, "quirky" is a commonly used as code for Aspies. We lovingly call our Aspie S "quirky" and so do most parents in our support group. Now, whenever I hear it I automatically think Aspergers. If you are writing a recommendation, I would avoid the word. I think it is always better to give examples anyway, rather than just say "hardworking" or "respectful" or whatever.</p>

<p>Ok, I admit having some negative thoughts flow past if I were to read the word "quirky" in a recommendation letter.</p>

<p>There are adjectives that can be taken in two ways depending on context, even words that are generally seen as all positive. The key is not to rely on adjectives, rather on example, anecdotes and quotations to illustrate the point.</p>

<p>For instance, I think that "proactive" is one of those words which is usually a real positive, but could also be used as a euphemism. If the specific examples given of this trait sound more like inappropriate take charge arrogance or aggressiveness, maybe there's reason for concern. If used to show that the person is a well liked, self motivated, take charge leader, it's obviously a plus.</p>

<p>I learned the code when I was in the military and regularly reviewed officers' yearly performance evaluations. Hardworking, diligent, a pleasure to have - all kisses of death. Outstanding, top performer, want him in my next command - all winners. </p>

<p>Tell your kids to make sure they confirm that their recommenders WILL write them excellent - not lukewarm - recommendations. It's hard for kids to ask adults such a direct question, but essential. Something along the lines of "I trust that you can write me an outstanding recommendation, and if not, it's okay. I have other options"</p>

<p>I've written tons of letters and have read tons of letters, over the course of a few decades. Not for undergrads but for applicants to graduate school. To my knowledge, I've never sensed any kind of code of any kind whatsoever. And even if there was a code, it would not be distilled down to particular words. </p>

<p>In my experience, letters are never negative, as most find diplomatic ways to bow out, and avoid wasting time writing letters for students they do not believe in. But letters that do a disservice to students are ones that really do not say anything (the praise is faint, the letter short, and/oor the content is so full of generalities, cliches or generic statements, that it provides no information). Concrete examples, details, and unique information are important. I think it reflects more on the letter writer than the applicant, but one can't know. </p>

<p>As an aside, I think quirky is a positive! It describes someone who is unique, creative, interesting, and an independent thinker (but also is likely not a preppy, a jock, a future fraternity member, nor too conforming to a particular stereotype). Then again we are a family of academic nerds, and among professors and their children, we are all pretty unconventional. </p>

<p>I disagree with the poster above me. "Top performer" and "outstanding" are meaningless generic words, just like the others. They could just be a big fish in a tiny pond. Big whoop. Stories and examples are needed. Though I imagine in a strong relatively inform culture like the military, code works. </p>

<p>I have to say though I would find the suggested request for the student to make, as noted above, would come across as arrogant and insulting. You either trust my letter writing ability (and how you have impressed me) or you haven't. If you haven't, go away and don't waste my time. Moreover, the most likely response would be "of course" (I mean, really, what could a person say after that kind of comment?)... and then it would have no impact. Because of course a teacher writes outstanding letters! The word outstanding is meaningless and open to anyone's interpretation. </p>

<p>But I do think it's important to give the letter writers lots of help with details and concrete examples - in writing- to refresh their memory!</p>

<p>In a recommendation letter, I would avoid using any adjectives subject to interpretation. So don't say "quirky," say original or creative. Don't say "tough," say disciplined or undaunted.
And to avoid any misunderstanding, provide a clear (and hopefully positive-sounding) example of what you mean, exactly.</p>

<p>I would have said people with Asperger's (of whom I would be one, technically, if only I were depressed, which I am not) are not quirky but single-minded freight trains. Quirky seems much more emotional and artistic to me.</p>

<p>I think that further highlight that such words are inappropriate in most letters of recommendation unless backed up by a lot of examples and specifics, because their connotations are so vague and personal.</p>

<p>My S got a recommendation letter from one of his teacher, it was pretty good overall, except the teacher decribed him as a "perfectionist". How good was that?</p>

<p>I've written lots of recommendation letters. I don't think there's a "secret code," but I do think recommenders can be very nuanced, writing a range of positive letters from mildly-to-moderately positive, to strongly enthusiastic. I've never written a negative letter; better, in my judgment, to beg off, even if it means telling the student I'm not able to write a recommendation that will help them and consequently they might be better served to look elsewhere. That's a very painful conversation to have.</p>

<p>Can't say I've ever used the word "quirky" and I doubt that I would, at least not without specific examples that cast the student in a generally positive light. The only situation where I can imagine that word being helpful is in a letter tailored for the University of Chicago which seems to cultivate an image as a place that appeals to "quirky" intellectual types, but even there I think I'd avoid "quirky" and talk about the applicant's "wide-ranging and eclectic intellectual interests," or something like that.</p>

<p>I don't think "hard-working" and "diligent" are at all pejorative, at least not if used in conjunction with words like "intelligent" or "talented" and connected with specific examples of superior work product that results from that potent combination. Schools and employers want neither the most talented, nor the most diligent; they want those in whom the combination of talent and hard work are likely to produce the best results.</p>

<p>When I was younger, "quirky" meant more artistic"or liking different things than peers but now it does seem to be used with aspergers a lot. </p>

<p>My son doesn't have aspergers, but does have a couple of traits and I like the word but wouldn't use it in a rec, someone might think "odd" in a bad way.</p>

<p>My kids were described by one GC as "going to the beat of their own drummer" because they didn't feel the need to fit in by doing things their peers were doing, drinking, smoking, wearing the same clothes, things like that and he put a positive spin on it.</p>

<p>I don't think this issue is specific to recommendation letters. Certain words have connotations. Some words don't have connotations by themselves but have connotations when used with other words. As a writer of anything you have to be aware of this and know how your audience will perceive your words. </p>

<p>"Quirky" often connotes (and some would say denotes) "weird." Perhaps the people who read recommendation letters are higher order human beings, but most humans tend to be put off by "weird."</p>