Choosing the next graduate class is one of the most important things we do besides choosing new faculty. We have a fairly typical application form with two essays by the student, three recommendations by faculty that know them, standardized test scores, and grades. With this information we need to decide what the students are interested in, how passionate they are about those interests, how talented they are in pursuing those interests, and how good their fit is with what we have to offer. Are we good at this imperfect process? Perhaps, if you judge by the success of the students we have admitted. But we cannot know what the others might have done. We cannot know who is just inexperienced in the academic tradition and didn’t know what to put down. But ours is a tiny program, this year aiming for only a handful of acceptances, not even one per faculty member, so we do our best.
I feel it is important to remember what we cannot do and what the letter writers cannot do and that is either predict who will do well or measure the soul of a person. Yet our amateurish forms ask the recommenders to do just that. It grates every year. A form with tick boxes done by different people with different pools to judge and different biases on different applicants is likely to have so many problems as to be worthless. Yet professor after professor happily ticks off those boxes as if they were little gods, or idols.
If these are the things we want to know about, have people write about them in their letters. They could give an example of independent functioning, for example. Then we could distinguish someone who did a taught assay on their own from someone who did a whole project alone, or who came up with a big solution. Those tick boxes don’t let us discriminate.
Some of the categories are more amenable for judgement than others. They talk the most about Motivation and Industry, I suppose. They hardly ever know anything about Understanding of the Fundamentals of her/his major, of course. Who came up with this list anyway? Surely no social scientist was consulted. It isn’t a bad list in terms of things that would be nice to know. It is just that tick boxes on a general form will not actually tell us anything about them.
The one that makes me most uncomfortable and even upset is Overall intellectual ability. You seriously think someone can judge this? You think that across many advisers, many students, the judgement will be so uniform that we can use this? Of course not.
You do not have to use those columns. You can simply check the top box for everyone. But don’t forget to write a letter that makes the person come alive with what they do and what they have discovered. Overall, I find these letters are better at that than are the letters I read for faculty candidates.